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She will not run into debt; and she's quite right; so we have to manage with what we've got in the convent. Of course there are some vegetables and some flour in the house; but we can't go on like this for long. We don't mind so much for ourselves, but we are so anxious about Mother Prioress; you know how weak her heart is, and all this anxiety may kill her. Then there are the invalid sisters, who ought to have fresh meat.
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Published by Urban Romantics
First published in 2018
Copyright © 2018 Urban Romantics
All Rights Reserved.
A weaver goes to the mart with a divided tapestry, and with half in either hand he walks about telling that whoever possesses one must, perforce, possess the other for the sake of the story. But allegories are out of place in popular editions; they require linen paper, large margins, uncut edges; even these would be insufficient; only illuminated vellum can justify that which is never read. So perhaps it will be better if I abandon the allegory and tell what happened: how one day after writing the history of “Evelyn Innes” for two years I found myself short of paper, and sought vainly for a sheet in every drawer of the writing-table; every one had been turned into manuscript, and “Evelyn Innes” stood nearly two feet high.
“Five hundred pages at least,” I said, “and only half of my story finished…. This is a matter, on which I need the publisher’s opinion.”
Ten minutes after I was rolling away in a hansom towards Paternoster Square, very anxious to persuade him that the way out of my difficulty would be to end the chapter I was then writing on a full close.
“That or a novel of a thousand pages,” I said.
“A novel of a thousand pages!” he answered. “Impossible! We must divide the book.” It may have been to assuage the disappointment he read on my face that he added, “You’ll double your money.”
My publisher had given way too easily, and my artistic conscience forthwith began to trouble me, and has never ceased troubling me since that fatal day. The book the publisher puts asunder the author may not bring together, and I shall write to no purpose in one preface that “Evelyn Innes” is not a prelude to “Sister Teresa” and in another that “Sister Teresa” is not a sequel to “Evelyn Innes.” Nor will any statement of mine made here or elsewhere convince the editors of newspapers and reviews to whom this book will be sent for criticism that it is not a revised edition of a book written ten years ago, but an entirely new book written within the last eighteen months; the title will deceive them, and my new book will be thrown aside or given to a critic with instructions that he may notice it in ten or a dozen lines. Nor will the fact that “Evelyn Innes” occupies a unique place in English literature cause them to order that the book shall be reread and reconsidered—a unique place I hasten to add which it may easily lose to-morrow, for the claim made for it is not one of merit, but of kind.
“Evelyn Innes” is a love story, the first written in English for three hundred years, and the only one we have in prose narrative. For this assertion not to seem ridiculous it must be remembered that a love story is not one in which love is used as an ingredient; if that were so nearly all novels would be love stories; even Scott’s historical novels could not be excluded. In the true love story love is the exclusive theme; and perhaps the reason why love stories are so rare in literature is because the difficulty of maintaining the interest is so great; probably those in existence were written without intention to write love stories. Mine certainly was. The manuscript of this book was among the printers before it broke on me one evening as I hung over the fire that what I had written was a true love story about a man and a woman who meet to love each other, who are separated for material or spiritual reasons, and who at the end of the story are united in death or affection, no matter which, the essential is that they should be united. My story only varies from the classical formula in this, that the passion of “the lovely twain” is differentiated.
It would be interesting to pursue this subject, and there are other points which it would be interesting to touch upon; there must be a good deal for criticism in a book which has been dreamed and re-dreamed for ten years. But, again, of what avail? The book I now offer to the public will not be read till I am dead. I have written for posterity if I have written for anybody except myself. The reflection is not altogether a pleasant one. But there it is; we follow our instinct for good or evil, but we follow it; and while the instinct of one man is to regard the most casual thing that comes from his hand as “good enough,” the instinct of another man compels him to accept all risks, seeking perfection always, although his work may be lost in the pursuit.
My readers, who are all Balzacians, are already thinking of Porbus and Poussin standing before le chef d’oeuvre Inconnu in the studio of Mabuse’s famous pupil—Frenhofer. Nobody has seen this picture for ten years; Frenhofer has been working on it in some distant studio, and it is now all but finished. But the old man thinks that some Eastern woman might furnish him with some further hint, and is about to start on his quest when his pupil Porbus persuades him that the model he is seeking is Poussin’s mistress. Frenhofer agrees to reveal his mistress (i.e., his picture) on condition that Poussin persuades his mistress to sit to him for an hour, for he would compare her loveliness with his art. These conditions having been complied with, he draws aside the curtain; but the two painters see only confused colour and incoherent form, and in one corner “a delicious foot, a living foot escaped by a miracle from a slow and progressive destruction.”
In the first edition of “Evelyn Innes” (I think the passage has been dropped out of the second) Ulick Dean says that one should be careful what one writes, for what one writes will happen. Well, perhaps what Balzac wrote has happened, and I may have done no more than to realise one of his most famous characters.
As soon as Mother Philippa came into the parlour Evelyn guessed there must be serious trouble in the convent.
“But what is the matter, Mother Philippa?”
“Well, my dear, to tell you the truth, we have no money at all.”
“None at all! You must have some money.”
“As a matter of fact we have none, and Mother Prioress won’t let us order anything from the tradespeople.”
“She will not run into debt; and she’s quite right; so we have to manage with what we’ve got in the convent. Of course there are some vegetables and some flour in the house; but we can’t go on like this for long. We don’t mind so much for ourselves, but we are so anxious about Mother Prioress; you know how weak her heart is, and all this anxiety may kill her. Then there are the invalid sisters, who ought to have fresh meat.”
“I suppose so,” and Evelyn thought of driving to the Wimbledon butcher and bringing back some joints.
“But, Mother, why didn’t you let me know before? Of course I’ll help you.”
“The worst of it is, Evelyn, we want a great deal of help.”
“Well, never mind; I’m ready to give you a great deal of help… as much as I can. And here is the Prioress.”
The Prioress stood resting, leaning on the door-handle, and Evelyn was by her side in an instant.
“Thank you, my child, thank you,” and she took Evelyn’s arm.
“I’ve heard of your trouble, dear Mother, and am determined to help you; so you must sit down and tell me about it.”
“Reverend Mother ought not to be about,” said Mother Philippa. “On
Monday night she was so ill we had to get up to pray for her.”
“I’m better to-day. If it hadn’t been for this new trouble—” As the Prioress was about to explain she paused for breath, and Evelyn said:
“Another time. What does it matter to whom you owe the money? You owe it to somebody, and he is pressing you for it—isn’t that so? Of course it is, dear Mother. Well, I’ve come to bring you good news. You remember my promise to arrange a concert tour as soon as I was free? Everything has been arranged; we start next Thursday, and with fair hope of success.”
“How good of you!”
“You will succeed, Evelyn; and as Mother Philippa says, it is very good of you.”
The Prioress spoke with hesitation, and Evelyn guessed that the nuns were thinking of their present necessities.
“I can let you have a hundred pounds easily, and I could let you have more if it were not—” The pause was sufficiently dramatic to cause the nuns to press her to go on speaking, saying that they must know they were not taking money which she needed for herself. “I wasn’t thinking of myself, but of my poor people; they’re so dependent upon me, and I am so dependent upon them, even more than they are upon me, for without them there would be no interest in my life, and nothing for me to do except to sit in my drawing-room and look at the wall paper and play the piano.”
“We couldn’t think of taking money which belongs to others. We shall put our confidence in God. No, Evelyn, pray don’t say any more.”
But Evelyn insisted, saying she would manage in such a way that her poor people should lack nothing. “Of course they lack a great deal, but what I mean is, they’ll lack nothing they’ve been in the habit of receiving from me,” and, speaking of their unfailing patience in adversity, she said: “and their lives are always adversity.”
“Your poor people are your occupations since you left the stage?”
“You think me frivolous, or at least changeable, Reverend Mother?”
“No, indeed; no, indeed,” both nuns cried together, and Evelyn thought of what her life had been, how the new occupations which had come into it contrasted with the old—singing practice in the morning, rehearsals, performances in the evening, intrigues, jealousies; and the change seemed so wonderful that she would like to have spoken of it to the nuns, only that could not be done without speaking of Owen Asher. But there was no reason for not speaking of her stage life, the life that had drifted by. “You see, my old friends are no longer interested in me.” A look of surprise came into the nuns’ faces. “Why should they be? They are only interested in me so long as I am available to fill an engagement. And the singers who were my friends—what should I speak to them about? Not of my poor people; though, indeed, many of my friends are very good: they are very kind to each other.”
“But we mustn’t think of taking the money from you that should go to your poor people.”
“No, no; that is out of the question, dear Mother. As I have told you, I can easily let you have a hundred pounds; and as for paying off the debts of the convent—that I look upon as an obligation, as a bonne bouche, I might say. My heart is set on it.” “We can never thank you enough.”
“I don’t want to be thanked; it is all pleasure to me to do this for you. Now goodbye; I’ll write to you about the success of the concerts. You will pray that I may be a great success, won’t you? Much more depends upon your prayers than on my voice.”
Mother Philippa murmured that everything was in God’s hands.
The Prioress raised her eyes and looked at Evelyn questioningly. “Mother Philippa is quite right. Our prayers will be entirely pleasing to God; He sent you to us. Without you our convent would be broken up. We shall pray for you, Evelyn.”
The larger part of the stalls was taken up by Lady Ascott’s party; she had a house-party at Thornton Grange, and had brought all her friends to Edinburgh to hear Evelyn. Added to which, she had written to all the people she knew living in Edinburgh, and within reach of Edinburgh, asking them to come to the concert, pressing tickets upon them.
“But, my dear, is it really true that you have left the stage? One never heard of such a thing before. Now, why did you do this? You will tell me about it? You will come to Thornton Grange, won’t you, and spend a few days with us?”
But in Thornton Grange Evelyn would meet many of her old friends, and a slight doubt came into her eyes.
“No, I won’t hear of a refusal. You are going to Glasgow; Thornton Grange is on your way there; you can easily spend three days with us. No, no, no, Evelyn, you must come; I want to hear all about your religious scruples.”
“That is the last thing I should like to speak about. Besides, religious scruples, dear Lady Ascott—”
“Well, then, you shan’t speak about them at all; nobody will ask you about them. To tell you the truth, my dear, I don’t think my friends would understand you if you did. But you will come; that is the principal thing. Now, not another word; you mustn’t tire your voice; you have to sing again.” And Lady Ascott returned to the concert-hall for the second part of the programme.
After the concert Evelyn was handed a letter, saying that she would be expected to-morrow at Thornton Grange; the trains were as follows: if she came by this train she would be in time for tea, and if she came by the other she would be just in time for dinner.
“She’s a kind soul, and after all she has done it is difficult to refuse her.” So Evelyn sent a wire accepting the invitation…. Besides, there was no reason for refusing unless—A knock! Her manager! and he had come to tell her they had taken more money that night than on any previous night. “Perhaps Lady Ascott may have some more friends in Glasgow and will write to them,” he added as he bade her good-night.
“Three hundred pounds! Only a few of the star singers would have gathered as much money into a hall,” and to the dull sound of gold pieces she fell asleep. But the sound of gold is the sweetest tribute to the actress’s vanity, and this tribute Evelyn had missed to some extent in the preceding concerts; the others were artistic successes, but money had not flowed in, and a half-empty concert-room puts an emptiness into the heart of the concert singer that nothing else can. But the Edinburgh concert had been different; people had been more appreciative, her singing had excited more enthusiasm. Lady Ascott had brought musical people to hear her, and Evelyn awoke, thinking that she would not miss seeing Lady Ascott for anything; and while looking forward to seeing her at Thornton Grange, she thought of the money she had made for the poor nuns, and then of the money awaiting her in Glasgow…. It would be nice if by any chance Lady Ascott were persuaded to come to Glasgow for the concert, bringing her party with her. Anything was possible with Lady Ascott; she would go anywhere to hear music.
“But what an evening!” and she watched the wet country. A high wind had been blowing all day, but the storm had begun in the dusk, and when she arrived at the station the coachman could hardly get his horses to face the wind and rain. In answer to her question the footman told her Thornton Grange was about a mile from the station; and when the carriage turned into the park she peered through the wet panes, trying to see the trees which Owen had often said were the finest in Scotland; but she could only distinguish blurred masses, and the yellow panes of a parapeted house.
“How are you, my dear Evelyn? I’m glad to see you. You’ll find some friends here.” And Lady Ascott led her through shadowy drawing-rooms curtained with red silk hangings, filled with rich pictures, china vases, books, marble consol tables on which stood lamps and tall candles. Owen came forward to meet her.
“I am so glad to meet you, Miss Innes! You didn’t expect to see me? I hope you’re not sorry.”
“No, Sir Owen, I’m not sorry; but this is a surprise, for Lady Ascott didn’t tell me. Were you at the concert?”
“No, I couldn’t go; I was too ill. It was a privation to remain at home thinking—What did you sing?”
Evelyn looked at him shrewdly, believing only a little in his illness, and nearly convinced he had not gone to the concert because he wished to keep his presence a secret from her… fearing she would not come to Thornton Grange if she knew he were there.
“He missed a great deal; I told him so when I returned,” said Lady
“But what can one do, Miss Innes, when one is ill? The best music in the world—even your voice when one is ill—. Tell me what you sang.”
“Evelyn is going to sing at Glasgow; you will be able to go there with her.”
The servant announced another guest and Lady Ascott went forward to meet him. Guest after guest, and all were greeted with little cries of fictitious intimacy; and each in turn related his or her journey, and the narratives were chequered with the names of other friends who had been staying in the houses they had just come from. Evelyn listened, thinking of her poor people, contrasting their simplicities with the artificialities of the gang—that is how she put it to herself—which ran about from one house to another, visiting, calling itself Society, talking always, changing the conversation rapidly, never interested in any subject sufficiently to endure it for more than a minute and a half. The life of these people seemed to Evelyn artificial as that of white mice, coming in by certain doors, going out by others, climbing poles, engaged in all kinds of little tricks; yet she was delighted to find herself among them all again, for her life had been dull and tedious since she left the convent; and this sudden change, taking her back to art and to her old friends, was very welcome; and the babble of all these people about her inveigled her out of her new self; and she liked to hear about so many people, their adventures, their ideas, misfortunes, precocious caprices.
The company had broken up into groups, and one little group, of which Evelyn was part, had withdrawn into a corner to discuss its own circle of friends; and all the while Evelyn’s face smiled, her eyes and her lips and her thoughts were atingle. Nonsense! Yes, it was nonsense! But what delicious nonsense! and she waited for somebody to speak of Canary—the “love machine,” as he was called. No sooner had the thought come into her mind than somebody mentioned his name, telling how Beatrice, after sending him away in the luggage-cart, had yielded and taken him back again. “He is her interest,” Evelyn said to herself, and she heard that Canary still continued to cause Beatrice great unhappiness; and some interesting stories were told of her quarrels—all her quarrels were connected with Canary. One of the most serious was with Miss ——, who had gone for a walk with him in the morning; and the guests at Thornton Grange were divided regarding Miss ——’s right to ask Canary to go for a walk with her, for, of course, she had come down early for the purpose, knowing well that Beatrice never came downstairs before lunch.
“Quite so.” The young man was listened to, and he continued to argue for a long while that it was not reasonable for a woman to expect a man to spend the whole morning reading the Times, and that apparently was what Beatrice wished poor Canary to do until she chose to come down. Nevertheless, the general opinion was in favour of Beatrice and against the girl.
“Beatrice has been so kind to her,” and everybody had something to say on this point.
“But what happened?” Evelyn asked, and the leader of this conversation, a merry little face with eyes like wild flowers and a great deal of shining hair, told of Beatrice’s desperate condition when the news of Miss ——’s betrayal reached her.
“I went up and found her in tears, her hair hanging down her back, saying that nobody cared for her. Although she spends three thousand a year on clothes, she sits up in that bedroom in a dressing-gown that we have known for the last five years. “Well, Beatrice,” I said, “if you’ll only put on a pair of stays and dress yourself and come downstairs, perhaps somebody will care for you.”
A writer upon economic subjects who trailed a black lock of hair over a bald skull declared he could see the scene in Beatrice’s bedroom quite clearly, and he spoke of her woolly poodle looking on, trying to understand what it was all about, and his allusion to the poodle made everybody laugh, for some reason not very apparent, and Evelyn wondered at the difference between the people she was now among and those she had left—the nuns in their convent at the edge of Wimbledon Common, and her thoughts passing back, she remembered the afternoon in the Savoy Hotel spent among her fellow-artists.
Her reverie endured, she did not know how long; only that she was awakened from it by Lady Ascott, come to tell her it was time to go upstairs to dress for dinner. Now with whom would she go down? With Owen, of course, such was the etiquette in houses like Thornton Grange. It was possible Lady Ascott might look upon them as married people and send her down with somebody else—one of those young men! No! The young men would be reserved for the girls. As she suspected, she went down with Owen. He did not tell her where he had been since she last saw him; intimate conversation was impossible amid a glitter of silver dishes and anecdotes of people they knew; but after dinner in a quiet corner she would hear his story. And as soon as the men came up from the dining-room Owen went straight towards her, and she followed him out of hearing of the card-players.
“At last we are alone. My gracious! how I’ve looked forward to this little talk with you, all through that long dinner, and the formal talk with the men afterwards, listening to infernal politics and still more infernal hunting. You didn’t expect to meet me, did you?”
“No; Lady Ascott said nothing about your being here when she came to the concert.”
“And perhaps you wouldn’t have come if you had known I was here?”
“Is that why you didn’t come to the concert?”
“Well, Evelyn, I suppose it was. You’ll forgive me the trickery, won’t you?” She took his hand and held it for a moment. “That touch of your hand means more to me than anything in the world.” A cloud came into her face which he saw and it pained him to see it. “Lady Ascott wrote saying she intended to ask you to Thornton Grange, so I wrote at once asking her if she could put me up; she guessed an estrangement, and being a kind woman, was anxious to put it right.”
“An estrangement, Owen? But there is no estrangement between us?”
“Well, no, Owen, not what I should call an estrangement.”
“But you sent me away, saying I shouldn’t see you for three months.
Now three months have passed—haven’t I been obedient?”
“Have three months passed?”
“Yes; It was in August you sent me away and now we are in November.”
“Three months all but a fortnight.”
“The last time I saw you was the day you went to Wimbledon to sing for the nuns. They have captured you; you are still singing for them.”
“You mustn’t say a word against the nuns,” and she told anecdotes about the convent which interested her, but which provoked him even to saying under his breath, “Miserable folk!”
“I won’t allow you to speak like that against my friends.”
Owen apologised, saying they had taken her from him. “And you can’t expect me to sympathise with people or with an idea that has done this? It wouldn’t be human, and I don’t think you would like me any better if I did—now would you, Evelyn? Can you say that you would, honestly, hand upon your heart?—if a heart is beating there still.”
“A heart is beating—”
“I mean if a human heart is beating.”
“It seems to me, Owen, I am just as human, more human than ever, only it is a different kind of humanity.”
“Pedantry doesn’t suit women, nor does cruelty; cruelty suits no one and you were very cruel when we parted.”
“Yes, I suppose I was, and it is always wrong to be cruel. But I had to send you away; if I hadn’t I should have been late for the concert. You don’t realise, Owen, you can’t realise—” And as she said those words her face seemed to freeze, and Owen thought of the idea within her turning her to ice.
“The wind! Isn’t it uncanny? You don’t know the glen? One of the most beautiful in Scotland.” And he spoke of the tall pines at the end of it, the finest he had ever seen, and hoped that not many would be blown down during the night. “Such a storm as this only happens once in ten years. Good God, listen!” Like a savage beast the wind seemed to skulk, and to crouch…. It sprang forward and seized the house and shook it. Then it died away, and there was stillness for a few minutes.
“But it is only preparing for another attack,” Evelyn said, and they listened, hearing the wind far away gathering itself like a robber band, determined this time to take the castle by assault. Every moment it grew louder, till it fell at last with a crash upon the roof.
“But what a fool I am to talk to you about the wind, not having seen you for three months! Surely there is something else for us to talk about?”
“I would sooner you spoke about the wind, Owen.”
“It is cruel of you to say so, for there is only one subject worth talking about—yourself. How can I think of any other? When I am alone in Berkeley Square I can only think of the idea which came into your head and made a different woman of you.” Evelyn refrained from saying “And a much better woman,” and Owen went on to tell how the idea had seized her in Pisa. “Remember, Evelyn, it played you a very ugly trick then. I’m not sure if I ought to remind you.”
“You mean when you found me sitting on the wall of an olive-garth?
But there was no harm in singing to the peasants.”
“And when I found you in a little chapel on the way to the pine-forest—the forest in which you met Ulick Dean. What has become of that young man?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t heard of him.”
“You once nearly went out of your mind on his account.”
“Because I thought he had killed himself.”
“Or because you thought you wouldn’t be able to resist him?”
Evelyn did not answer, and looking through the rich rooms, unconsciously admiring the gleaming of the red silk hangings in the lamplight, and the appearance of a portrait standing in the midst of its dark background and gold frame, she discovered some of the guests: two women leaning back in a deep sofa amid cushions confiding to each other the story of somebody’s lover, no doubt; and past them, to the right of a tall pillar, three players looked into the cards, one stood by, and though Owen and Evelyn were thinking of different things they could not help noticing the whiteness of the men’s shirt fronts, and the aigrette sprays in the women’s hair, and the shapely folds of the silken dresses falling across the carpet.
“Not one of these men and women here think as you do; they are satisfied to live. Why can’t you do the same?”
“I am different from them.”
“But what is there different in you?”
“You don’t think then, Owen, that every one has a destiny?”
“Evelyn, dear, how can you think these things? We are utterly unimportant; millions and billions of beings have preceded us, billions will succeed us. So why should it be so important that a woman should be true to her lover?”
“Does it really seem to you an utterly unimportant matter?”
“Not nearly so important as losing the woman one loves.” And looking into her face as he might into a book, written in a language only a few words of which he understood, he continued: “And the idea seems to have absorbed you, to have made its own of you; it isn’t religion, I don’t think you are a religious woman. You usen’t to be like this when I took you away to Paris. You were in love with me, but not half so much in love with me as you are now with this idea, not so subjugated. Evelyn, that is what it is, you are subjugated, enslaved, and you can think of nothing else.”
“Well, if that is so, Owen—and I won’t say you are utterly wrong— why can’t you accept things as they are?”
“But it isn’t true, Evelyn? You will outlive this idea. You will be cured.”
“I hope not.”
“You hope not? Well, if you don’t wish to be cured it will be difficult to cure you. But now, here in this house, where everything is different, do you not feel the love of life coming back upon you? And can you accept negation willingly as your fate?”
Evelyn asked Owen what he meant and he said:
“Well, your creed is a negative one—that no man shall ever take you in his arms again, saying, ‘Darling, I am so fond of you!’ You would have me believe that you will be true to this creed? But don’t I know how dear that moment is to you? No, you will not always think as you do now; you will wake up as from a nightmare, you will wake up.”
“Do you think I shall?” Soon after their talk drifted to Lady Ascott and to her guests, and Owen narrated the latest intrigues and the mistake Lady Ascott had been guilty of by putting So-and-so and So-and-so to sleep in the same corridor, not knowing that their liaison had been broken off at least three months before.
“Jim is now in love with Constance.”
“How very horrible!”
“Horrible? It is that fellow Mostyn who has put these ideas into your head!”
“He has put nothing into my head, Owen.”
“Upon my word I believe you’re right. It is none of his doing. But he has got the harvesting; ah, yes, and the nuns, too. You never loved me as you love this idea, Evelyn?”
“Do you think not?”
“When you were studying music in Paris you were quite willing I should go away for a year.”
“But I repaid you for it afterwards; you can’t say I didn’t. There were ten years in which I loved you. How is it you have never reproached me before?”
“Why should I? But now I’ve come to the end of the street; there is a blank wall in front of me.”
“You make me very miserable by talking like this.”
They sat without speaking, and Lady Ascott’s interruption was welcome.
“Now, my dear Sir Owen, will you forgive me if I ask Evelyn to sing for us? You’d like to hear her sing—wouldn’t you?”
Owen sprang to his feet.
“Of course, of course. Come, Miss Innes, you will sing for us. I have been boring you long enough, haven’t I? And you’ll be glad to get to the piano. Who will accompany you?”
“You, Sir Owen, if you will be kind enough.”
The card-players were glad to lay down their cards and the women to cease talking of their friends’ love affairs. All the world over it is the same, a soprano voice subjugating all other interests; soprano or tenor, baritone much less, contralto still less. Many came forward to thank her, and, a little intoxicated with her success, she began to talk to some of her women friends, thinking it unwise to go back into a shadowy corner with Owen, making herself the subject of remark; for though her love story with Owen Asher had long ceased to be talked about, a new interest in it had suddenly sprung up, owing to the fact that she had sent Owen away, and was thinking of becoming a nun—even to such an extent her visit to the convent had been exaggerated; and as the women lagging round her had begun to try to draw from her an account of the motives which had induced her to leave the stage, and the moment not seeming opportune, even if it were not ridiculous at any moment to discuss spiritual endeavour with these women, she determined to draw a red herring across the trail. She told them that the public were wearying of Wagner’s operas, taste was changing, light opera was coming into fashion.
“And in light opera I should have no success whatever, so I was obliged to turn from the stage to the concert-room.”
“We thought it was the religious element in Wagner.”
A card party had come from a distant drawing-room and joined in the discussion regarding the decline of art, and it was agreed that motor-cars had done a great deal to contribute—perhaps they had nothing to do with the decline of Wagner—but they had contributed to the decline of interest in things artistic. This was the opinion of two or three agreeable, good-looking young men; and Evelyn forgot the women whom she had previously been talking to; and turning to the men, she engaged in conversation and talked on and on until the clock struck eleven. Then the disposition of every one was for bed. Whispers went round, and Lady Ascott trotted upstairs with Evelyn, hoping she would find her room comfortable.
It was indeed a pleasant room, wearing an air of youthfulness, thanks to its chintz curtains. The sofa was winning and the armchairs desirable, and there were books and a reading-lamp if Evelyn should feel disposed to draw the armchair by the fire and read for an hour before going to bed. The writing-table itself, with its pens and its blotting-book, and notepaper so prettily stamped, seemed intended to inveigle the occupant of the room into correspondence with every friend she had in the world; and Evelyn began to wonder to whom she might write a letter as soon as Lady Ascott left the room.
The burning wood shed a pleasant odour which mingled pleasantly with that of the dressing-table; and she wandered about the room, her mind filled with vague meditations, studying the old engravings, principally pictures of dogs and horses, hounds and men, going out to shoot in bygone costumes, with long-eared spaniels to find the game for them. There was a multitude of these pictures on the walls, and Evelyn wondered who was her next-door neighbour. Was it Owen? Or was he down at the end of the passage? In a house like Thornton Grange the name of every one was put on his or her door, so that visitors should not wander into the wrong room by accident, creating dismay and provoking scandal. Owen, where was he? A prayer was offered up that he might be at the other end of the house. It would not be right if Lady Ascott had placed him in the adjoining room, it really would not be right, and she regretted her visit. What evil thing had tempted her into this house, where everything was an appeal to the senses, everything she had seen since she had entered the house—food, wine, gowns? There was, however, a bolt to her door, and she drew it, forgetful that sin visits us in solitude, and more insidiously than when we are in the midst of crowds; and as she dozed in the scented room, amid the fine linen, silk, and laces, the sins which for generations had been committed in this house seemed to gather substance, and even shape; a strange phantasmata trooped past her, some seeming to bewail their sins, while others indulged themselves with each other, or turned to her, inciting her to sin with them, until one of them whispered in her ear that Owen was coming to her room, and then she knew that at his knock her strength would fail her, and she would let him in.
Her temptations disappeared and then returned to her; at last she saw Owen coming towards her. He leaned over the bed, and she saw his lips, and his voice sounded in her ears. It told her that he had been waiting for her; why hadn’t she come to his room? And why had he found her door bolted? Then like one bereft of reason, she slipped out of bed and went towards the door, seeing him in the lucidity of her dream clearly at the end of the passage; it was not until her hand rested on the handle of his door that a singing began in the night. The first voice was joined by another, and then by another, and she recognised the hymn, for it was one, the Veni Creator, and the singers were nuns. The singing grew more distinct, the singers were approaching her, and she retreated before them to her room; the room filled with plain chant, and then the voices seemed to die or to be borne away on the wind which moaned about the eaves and aloft in the chimneys. Turning in her bed, she saw the dying embers. She was in her room—only a dream, no more. Was that all? she asked as she lay in her bed singing herself to sleep, into a sleep so deep that she did not wake from it until her maid came to ask her if she would have breakfast in her room or if she were going down to breakfast.
“I will get up at once, Mérat, and do you look out a train, or ask the butler to look out one for you; we are going to Glasgow by the first quick train.”
“But I thought Mademoiselle was going to stay here till Monday.”
“Yes, Mérat, I know, so did I; but I have changed my mind. You had better begin to pack at once, for there is certain to be a train about twelve.”
Evelyn saw that the devoted Mérat was annoyed; as well she might be, for Thornton Grange was a pleasant house for valets and lady’s maids. “Some new valet,” Evelyn thought, and she was sorry to drag Mérat away from him, for Mérat’s sins were her own—no one was answerable for another; there was always that in her mind; and what applied to her did not apply to anybody else.
“Dear Lady Ascott, you’ll forgive me?” she said during breakfast, “but I have to go to Glasgow this afternoon. I am obliged to leave by an early train.”
“Sir Owen, will you try to persuade her? Get her some omelette, and I will pour out some coffee. Which will you have, dear? Tea or coffee? Everybody will be so disappointed; we have all been looking forward to some singing to-night.”
Expostulations and suggestions went round the table, and Evelyn was glad when breakfast was over; and to escape from all this company, she accepted Owen’s proposal to go for a walk.
“You haven’t seen my garden, or the cliffs? Sir Owen, I count upon you to persuade her to stay until to-morrow, and you will show her the glen, won’t you? And you’ll tell me how many trees we have lost in last night’s storm.”
Owen and Evelyn left the other guests talking of how they had lain awake last night listening to the wind.
“Shall we go this way, round by the lake, towards the glen? Lady
Ascott is very disappointed; she said so to me just now.”
“You mean about my leaving?”
“Yes, of course, after all she had done for you, the trouble she had taken about the Edinburgh concert. Of course they all like to hear you sing; they may not understand very well, still they like it, everybody likes to hear a soprano. You might stay.”
“I’m very sorry, Owen, I’m sorry to disappoint Lady Ascott, who is a kindly soul, but—well, it raises the whole question up again. When one has made up one’s mind to live a certain kind of life—”
“But, Evelyn, who is preventing you from living up to your ideal? The people here don’t interfere with you? Nobody came knocking at your door last night?”
“I didn’t come, and I was next door to you. Didn’t it seem strange to you, Evelyn, that I should sleep so near and not come to say good-night? But I knew you wouldn’t like it, so I resisted the temptation.”
“Was that the only reason?”
“What do you mean?”
“Of course, I know you wouldn’t do anything that would displease me; you’ve been very kind, more kind than I deserve, but—”
“Well, it’s hard to express it. Nothing happened to prevent you?”
“I don’t mean that you were actually prevented, but was there another reason?”
“You mean a sudden scruple of conscience? My conscience is quite healthy.”
“Then what stayed you was no more than a fear of displeasing me? And you wanted to come to see me, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did. Well, perhaps there was another reason… only… no, there was no other reason.”
“But there was; you have admitted that there was. Do tell me.”
And Owen told her that something seemed to have held him back when the thought came of going to her room. “It was really very strange. The thought was put into my mind suddenly that it would be better for me not to go to your room.”
“No more than a sudden thought? But the thought was very clear and distinct?”
“Yes; but between waking and sleeping thoughts are unusually distinct.”
“You don’t believe in miracles, Owen?” And she told him of her dream and her sudden awaking, and the voices heard in her ears at first, then in the room, and then about the house. “So you see the nuns kept us apart.”
“And you believe in these things?”
“How can I do otherwise?”
Owen sighed, and they walked on a few paces. The last leaves were dancing; the woods were cold and wet, the heavy branches of the fir-trees dripping with cold rain, and in the walks a litter of chestnut-leaves.
“Not a space of blue in the sky, only grey. It will be drearier still in Glasgow; you had better stay here,” he said, as they walked round the little lake, watching the water-fowl moving in and out of the reeds, and they talked for some time of Riversdale, of the lake there, and the ducks which rose in great numbers and flew round and round the park, dropping one by one into the water. “You will never see Riversdale again, perhaps?”
“Perhaps not,” she answered; and hearing her say it, his future life seemed to him as forlorn as the landscape.
“What will you do? What will become of you? What strange transformation has taken place in you?”
“If—But what is the use of going over it again?”
“What would you have me do? Marriage would only ruin you, Owen, make you very unhappy. Why do you want me to enter on a life which I feel isn’t mine, and which could only end in disaster for both of us.” He asked her why it would end in disaster, and she answered, “It is impossible to lay bare one’s whole heart. When one changes one’s ideas one changes one’s friends.”
“Because one’s friends are only the embodiment of one’s ideas. But I cannot admit that you would be unhappy as my wife.”
“Everybody is unhappy when they are not doing what Nature intended them to do.”
“And what did Nature intend you to do? Only to sing operas?”
“I should be sorry to think Nature intended me for nothing else. Would you have me go on singing operas? I don’t want to appear unreasonable, but how could I go on singing even if I wished to go on? The taste has changed; you will admit that light opera is the fashion, and I shouldn’t succeed in light opera. Whatever I do you praise, but you know in the bottom of your heart there are only a few parts which I play well. You may deceive yourself, you do so because you wish to do so, but I have no wish to deceive myself and I know that I was never a great singer; a good singer, an interesting singer in certain parts if you like, but no more. You will admit that?”
“No, I don’t admit anything of the kind. If you leave the stage what will you do with your time? Your art, your friends—”
“No one can figure anybody else’s life: everybody has interests and occupations, not things that interest one’s neighbour, but things that interest herself.”
“So it is because light opera has come into fashion again that you are going to give up singing? Such a thing never happened before: a woman who succeeded on the stage, who has not yet failed, whose voice is still fresh, who is in full possession of her art, to say suddenly, ‘Money and applause are nothing to me, I prefer a few simple nuns to art and society.’ Nothing seems to happen in life, life is always the same; rien ne change mais pourtant tout arrive, even the rare event of a successful actress relinquishing the stage.”
“It is odd,” she said as they followed the path through the wintry wood, startled now and again by a rabbit at the end of the alley, by a cock pheasant rising up suddenly out of the yew hedges, and, beguiled by the beauty of the trees, they passed on slowly, pausing to think what a splendid sight a certain wild cherry must be in the spring-time. At the end of the wood Owen returned to the subject of their conversation.
“Yes, it is strange that an actress should give up her art.”
“But, Owen, it isn’t so strange in my case as in any other; for you know I was always a hothouse flower. You took me away to Paris and had me trained regardless of expense, and with your money it was easy to get an engagement.”
“My money had nothing to do with your engagements.”
“Perhaps not; but I only sang when it pleased me; I could always say, ‘Well, my good man, go to So-and-so, she will sing for you any parts you please’; but I can only sing the parts I like.”
“You think, then, that if you had lived the life of a real actress, working your way up from the bottom, what has happened wouldn’t have happened; is that what you mean?”
“It is impossible for me to answer you. One would have to live one’s life over again.”
“I suppose no one will ever know how much depends upon the gift we bring into the world with us, and how much upon circumstances,” and Owen compared the gift to the father’s seed and circumstances to the mother’s womb.
“So you are quite determined?” And they philosophised as they went, on life and its meaning, on death and love, admiring the temples which an eighteenth-century generation had built on the hillsides. “Here are eight pillars on either side and four at either end, serving no purpose whatever, not even shelter from the rain. Never again in this world will people build things for mere beauty,” Owen said, and they passed into the depths of the wood, discovering another temple, and in it a lad and lass.
“You see these temples do serve for something. Why are we not lovers?” And they passed on again, Owen’s heart filled with his sorrow and Evelyn’s with her determination.
She was leaving by the one train, and when they got back to the house the carriage was waiting for her.
“Am I not to see you again?”
“Yes, you will see me one of these days.”
“And that was all the promise she could make me,” he said, rushing into Lady Ascott’s boudoir, disturbing her in the midst of her letters. “So ends a liaison which has lasted for more than ten years. Good God, had I known that she would have spoken to me like this when I saw her in Dulwich!”
Even so he felt he would have acted just as he had acted, and he went to his room thinking that the rest of his life would be recollection. “She is still in the train, going away from me, intent on her project, absorbed in her desire of a new life … this haunting which has come upon her.”
And so it was. Evelyn lay back in the corner of the railway carriage thinking about the poor people, and about the nuns, about herself, about the new life which she was entering upon, and which was dearer to her than anything else. She grew a little frightened at the hardness of her heart. “It certainly does harden one’s heart,” she said; “my heart is as hard as a diamond. But is my heart as hard as a diamond?” The thought awoke a little alarm, and she sat looking into the receding landscape. “Even so I cannot help it.” And she wondered how it was that only one thing in the world seemed to matter—to extricate the nuns from their difficulties, that was all. Her poor people, of course she liked them; her voice, she liked it too, without, however, being able to feel certain that it interested her as much as it used to, or that she was not prepared to sacrifice it if her purpose demanded the sacrifice. But there was no question of such sacrifice: it was given to her as the means whereby she might effect her purpose. If the Glasgow concert were as successful as the Edinburgh, she would be able to bring back some hundreds of pounds to the nuns, perhaps a thousand. And what a pleasure that would be to her!
But the Glasgow concert was not nearly so successful: her manager attributed the failure to a great strike which had just ended; there was talk of another strike; moreover her week in Glasgow was a wet one, and her manager said that people did not care to leave their houses when it was raining.
“Or is it,” she asked, “because the taste has moved from dramatic singing to il bel canto? In a few years nobody will want to hear me, so I must make hay while the sun shines.”
Her next concert succeeded hardly better than the Glasgow concert; Hull, Leeds, Birmingham were tried, but only with moderate success, and Evelyn returned to London with very little money for the convent, and still less for her poor people.
“It is a disappointment to me, dear Mother?”
“My dear child, you’ve brought us a great deal of money, much more than we expected.”
“But, Mother, I thought I should be able to bring you three thousand pounds, and pay off a great part of your mortgage.”
“God, my child, seems to have thought differently.”
The door opened.
“Now who is this? Ah! Sister Mary John.”
“May I come in, dear Mother?”
“You see, I was so anxious to see Miss Innes, to hear about the concert tour—”
“Which wasn’t a success at all, Sister Mary John. Oh, not at all a success.”
“Not a success?”
“Well, from an artistic point of view it was; I brought you some of the notices,” and Evelyn took out of her pocket some hundreds of cuttings from newspapers. It had not occurred to her before, but now the thought passed through her mind, formulating itself in this way: “After all, the mummeress isn’t dead in me yet; bringing my notices to nuns! Dear me! how like me!” And she sat watching the nuns, a little amused, when the Prioress asked Sister Mary John to read some passages to her.
“Now I can’t sit here and hear you read out my praises. You can read them when I am gone. A little more money and a little less praise would have suited me better, Sister Mary John.”
“Would you care to come into the garden?” the nun asked. “I was just going out to feed the birds. Poor things! they come in from the common; our garden is full of them. But what about singing at Benediction to-day? Would you like to try some music over with me and forget the birds?”
“There will be plenty of time to try over music.”
The door opened again. It was the porteress come to say that
Monsignor had just arrived and would like to speak with the
“But ask him to come in…. Here is a friend of yours, Monsignor. She has just returned from—”
“From a disastrous concert tour, having only made four hundred pounds with six concerts. My career as a prima donna is at an end. The public is tired of me.”
“The artistic public isn’t tired of you,” said Sister Mary John.
“Read, Monsignor; she has brought us all her notices.”
“Oh, do take them away, Sister Mary John; you make me ashamed before Monsignor. Such vanity! What will he think of my bringing my notices to read to you? But you mustn’t think I am so vain as that, Monsignor; it was really because I thought the nuns would be interested to hear of the music—and to excuse myself. But you know, Mother, once I take a project in hand I don’t give it up easily. I have made up my mind to redeem this convent from debt, and it shall be done. My concert tour was a failure, but I have another idea in my head; and I came here to tell it to you. I don’t know what Monsignor will think of it. I have been offered a good deal of money to go to America to sing my own parts, for Wagner is not yet dead in America.”
“But, Miss Innes, I thought you intended to leave the stage?”
“I have left the stage, but I intend to go back to it. That is a point on which I will have to talk to Monsignor.” Evelyn waited for the prelate to speak.
“Such determination is very unusual, and if the cause be a good one I congratulate you, Mother Prioress, on your champion who, to defend you, will start for the New World.”
“Well, Monsignor, unless you repudiate the motives of those who went to Palestine to fight for the Holy Sepulchre, why should you repudiate mine?”
“But I haven’t said a word; indeed—”
“But you will talk to me about it, won’t you? For I must have your opinion before I go, Monsignor.”
“Well, now I think I shall disappear,” said Sister Mary John. “I’m going to feed the birds.”
“But you asked me to go with you.”
“That was before Monsignor came. But perhaps he would like to come with us. The garden is beautiful and white, and all the birds are waiting for me, poor darlings!”
The nuns, Evelyn and Monsignor went down the steps.
“There is a great deal of snow in the sky yet,” said Sister Mary John, pointing to the yellow horizon. “To-night or to-morrow it will fall, and the birds will die, if we don’t feed them.”
A flock of speckled starlings flew into a tree, not recognising Evelyn and Monsignor, but the blackbirds and thrushes were tamer and ran in front, watching the visitors with round, thoughtful eyes, the beautiful shape of the blackbird showing against the white background, and everybody admiring his golden bill and legs. The sparrows flew about Sister Mary John in a little cloud, until they were driven away by three great gulls come up from the Thames, driven inland by hard weather. A battle began, the gulls pecking at each other, wasting time in fighting instead of sharing the bread, only stopping now and then to chase away the arrogant sparrows. The robin, the wisest bird, came to Sister Mary John’s hand for his food, preferring the buttered bread to the dry. There were rooks in the grey sky, and very soon two hovered over the garden, eventually descending into the garden with wings slanted, and then the seagulls had to leave off fighting or go without food altogether. A great strange bird rose out of the bushes, and flew away in slow, heavy flight. Monsignor thought it was a woodcock; and there were birds whose names no one knew, migrating birds come from thousands of miles, from regions where the snow lies for months upon the ground; and Evelyn and the prelate and the nuns watched them all until the frosty air reminded the prelate that loitering was dangerous. Sister Mary John walked on ahead, feeding the birds, forgetful of Monsignor and Evelyn; a nun saying her rosary stopped to speak to the Prioress; Evelyn and Monsignor went on alone, and when they came towards St. Peter’s Walk no one was there, and the moment had come, Evelyn felt, to speak of her project to return to the stage in order to redeem the convent from debt.
“You didn’t answer me, Monsignor, when I said that I would have to consult you regarding my return to the stage.”
“Well, my dear child, the question whether you should go back to the stage couldn’t be discussed in the presence of the nuns. Your motives I appreciate; I need hardly say that. But for your own personal safety I am concerned. I won’t attempt to hide my anxiety from you.”
“But it is possible to remain on the stage and lead a virtuous life.”
“You have told me yourself that such a thing isn’t possible; from your own mouth I have it.”
Evelyn did not answer, but stood looking at the prelate, biting her lips, annoyed, finding herself in a dilemma.
“The motive is everything, Monsignor. I was speaking then of the stage as a vanity, as a glorification of self.”
“The motive is different, but the temptations remain the same.”
“I’m afraid I can’t agree with you. The temptation is in oneself, not in the stage, and when oneself has changed… and then many things have happened.”
“You are reconciled to the Church, it is true, and have received the
“More than that, Monsignor, more than that.” But it was a long time before he could persuade her to tell him. “You don’t believe in miracles?”
“My dear child, my dear child!”
After that it was impossible to keep herself from speaking, and she told how, at Thornton Grange, in the middle of the night, she had heard the nuns singing the Veni Creator.
“The nuns told me, Monsignor, their prayers would save me, and they were right.”
“But you aren’t sure whether you were dreaming or waking.”
“But my experience was shared by Sir Owen Asher, who told me next morning that he had thought of coming to my room and was restrained.”
“Did he say that he, too, heard voices?”
She had to admit that Owen had not said that he had heard voices, only that a restraint had been put upon him.
“The restraint need not have been a miraculous one.”
“You think he didn’t want to come to see me? I beg your pardon,
“There is nothing to beg my pardon for. I am your confessor, your spiritual adviser, and you must tell everything to me; and it is my duty to tell you that you place too much reliance upon miracles. This is not the first time you have spoken to me about miraculous interposition.”
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