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The Angel of Pain written by E. F. Benson who was an English novelist, biographer, memoirist, archaeologist and short story writer. This book was published in 1905. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Angel of Pain
E. F. Benson
THE garden lay dozing in the summer sun, a sun, too, that was really hot and luminous, worthy of mid-June, and Philip Home had paid his acknowledgments to its power by twice moving his chair into the shifting shade of the house, which stood with blinds drawn down, as if blinking in the brightness. Somewhere on the lawn below him, but hidden by the flower-beds of the terraced walk, a mowing-machine was making its clicking journeys to and fro, and the sound of it seemed to him to be extraordinarily consonant to the still heat of the afternoon. Entirely in character also with the day was the light hot wind that stirred fitfully among the garden beds as if it had gone to sleep there, and now and then turned over and made the flowers rustle and sigh. Huge Oriental poppies drooped their scarlet heads, late wall-flowers still sent forth their hot, homely odour, peonies blazed and flaunted, purple irises rivalled in their fading glories the budding stars of clematis that swarmed up the stone vases on the terrace, golden rain showered from the laburnums, lilacs stood thick in fragrant clumps and clusters. Canterbury bells raised spires of dry, crinkly blue, and forget-me-nots—nearly over—made a dim blue border to the glorious carpet of the beds. For the warm weather this year had come late but determinedly, spring flowers still lingered, and the later blossoms of early summer had been forced into premature appearance. This fact occupied Philip at this moment quite enormously. What would the garden be like in July? There must come a break somewhere, when the precious summer flowers were over, and before the autumn ones began.
It was not unreasonable of him to be proud of his garden, for any garden-lover would here have recognised a master-hand. Below, in the thick clay that bordered the Thames, were the roses kept apart, with no weed, no other flower to pilfer their rightful monopoly of “richness.” A flight of twelve stone steps led up from this garden to the tennis lawn, a sheet of velvet turf, unbordered by any flowers to be trampled by ball-seekers, or to be respected by ball-losers. Above again where he sat now a deep herbaceous border ran round three sides of the gravelled space, in the middle of which a bronze fountain cast water over Nereids and aquatic plants, and behind him rose the dozing house, sun-blinds and rambler rose, jasmine and red bricks.
Certainly at this moment Philip was more than content with life, a very rare but a very enviable condition of affairs. The lines seemed to him to be laid not in pleasant but in ecstatic places, and youth, hard work, a well-earned holiday, keen sensibilities, and being in love combined to form a state of mind which might be envied by the happiest man God ever made. An hour’s meditation with a shut book which he had selected at random from the volumes on the drawing-room table had convinced him of this, and the interruption that now came to his solitary thoughts was as delightful in its own way as the thoughts themselves.
Mrs. Home did everything in the way most characteristic of her, and if a Dresden shepherdess could be conceived as sixty years old she might possibly rival the clean, precise delicacy of Philip’s mother. She dressed in grey and Quakerish colours, but of an exquisite neatness, and her clothes smelled faintly but fragrantly of lavender and old-fashioned herbs. Even at sixty the china-prettiness of her face gave her pre-eminent charm; and her cheeks, wrinkled with no sharp lines of sudden shock, but with the long pleasant passage of time, were as pink and soft as a girl’s. Her hair was perfectly white, but still abundant, and, taken up in rather old-fashioned lines above her temples gave a roundness and youth to her face which was entirely in keeping with her. As she stepped out of the drawing-room window she put up her parasol, and walked quietly over the gravel to where her dark, long-limbed son was sitting.
“Darling, would it not be wise of you to go for a row on the river?” she said. “Your holiday is so short. I want you to make the best of it.”
Philip turned in his chair.
“Darling, it would be most unwise,” he said. “The best holiday is to do nothing at all. People are so stupid! They think that if your brain, or what does duty for it, is tired, the remedy is to tire your body also.”
“But a little walk, perhaps, Philip,” said she. “I can explain to your guests when they come. Do you know, I am rather frightened of them. That extraordinary Mr. Merivale, for instance. Will he want to take off all his clothes, and eat cabbages?”
Philip’s grave face slowly relaxed into a smile. He hardly ever laughed, but his smile was very complete.
“I shall tell him you said that,” he remarked.
Mrs. Home sat down with quite a thump at the horror of the thought.
“Dear Philip,” she said, “you mustn’t—you really mustn’t.”
He stretched out his hand to her.
“Oh, mother,” he said, “what will cure you of being so indiscreet except threats, and putting those threats into execution if necessary? He will want to take off all his clothes, as we all shall, if it goes on being so hot. Only he won’t any more than we shall. He will probably be extremely well-dressed. No, the Hermit is only the Hermit at the Hermitage. Even there he doesn’t take off all his clothes, though he lives an outdoor life. You never quite have recognised what a remarkable person he is.”
“I should remark him anywhere,” said Mrs. Home in self-defence. “And what age is he, Philip? Is he twenty, or thirty, or what?”
“He must be a year or two older than me,” he said. “Yes, I should say he was thirty-one. But it’s quite true—he doesn’t look any age; he looks ageless. Entirely the result of no clothes and cabbages.”
“They always seem to me so tasteless,” remarked Mrs. Home. “But they seem to suit him.”
“Dear old Hermit!” said Philip. “I haven’t seen him for a whole year. It becomes harder and harder to get him away from his beloved forest.”
“I can never understand what he does with himself, year in, year out, down there,” said Mrs. Home.
“He thinks,” said Philip.
“I should call that doing nothing,” remarked his mother.
“I know; there is that view of it. At the same time, it must be extremely difficult to think all day. I have been thinking for an hour, and I have quite finished. I should have had to begin to read if you hadn’t come out. And whom else are you frightened of out of all these terrible people?”
Mrs. Home smoothed her grey gown a little nervously.
“I am frightened of Lady Ellington,” she said. “She has so very much—so very much self-possession. She is so practical, too: she always tells me all sorts of ways of managing the house, and suggests all kinds of improvements. It is very kind of her, and she is always quite right. And I think I am a little afraid of Madge.”
“Ah, I can’t permit that,” said Philip, smiling again.
This brought their talk at once into more intimate lands.
“Ah, dear Philip,” she said. “I pray God that it may go well with you!”
Philip sat upright in his chair, and the book fell unheeded to the ground.
“How did you guess?” he said. “I suspect you of being a witch, mother; and if we had lived a few hundred years ago, instead of now, it would have been my painful duty to have had you burned. It would have hurt you far more than me, because the sense of duty would have sustained me. I never said a word to you about Madge, yet you knew I was in love with her, I think, almost before I knew it myself.”
“Yes, dear. I am sure I did,” said Mrs. Home with gentle complacence.
“Well, you dear witch, tell me how you knew.”
“Oh, Philip, it was easy to see. You never looked at any girl before like that. I used to be afraid you would never marry. You used to say dreadful things, you know, that really frightened me. Even since you were quite a little boy, you thought women were a bother. You used to say they couldn’t play games, and were always in the way, and had headaches, and were without any sense of honour.”
“All quite true in the main,” said the misogynous Philip.
Mrs. Home held up her hands in protest.
“Dear, when have you known me have a headache, or do anything dishonourable?” she asked pertinently.
“I always excepted you. And I except Madge. She beat me at croquet the other day, and in the middle of the game volunteered the information that she had not moved the ball she croquetted.”
“She always would,” said his mother gently. “Oh, Philip, good luck to your wooing, my dear!”
There was a long pause; a sparrow in a prodigious bustle alighted on the edge of the fountain, and drank as if it had been a traveller straight from Sahara; the wind woke again in the flower-beds and gave a long, fragrant sigh; the sun-blinds of the drawing-room stirred as it wandered by them, and the pale purple petals of a grape-bunch cluster of wisteria fell on the crimson-striped canvas. The exquisiteness of this midsummer moment struck Philip with a sudden pang of delight, none the less keen because the love with which his soul was full was not yet certain or complete: the pause before completion was his.
“Thank you, mother,” he said at last. “I shall know very soon, I shall ask her while she is here.”
He got up as he spoke.
“I can’t sit still any more,” he said. “Speaking of it has made me restless. I must go and do something violent. Perhaps I will take your advice and go for a row. They will not be here till nearly seven. Oh, by-the-way, Evelyn Dundas is coming, too. You will have someone to flirt with, mother.”
“Dear, you say such dreadful things!” said Mrs. Home. “And if you say them while Lady Ellington is here, I shall feel so awkward.”
“Well, Evelyn proposed to elope with you last time he was here,” said Philip. “I think I shall commission him to paint your portrait.”
“Who wants the picture of an old woman like me?” said Mrs. Home. “But get him to do Madge’s.”
Philip considered this.
“That’s an idea,” he said. “He could paint her divinely. Really, mother—if ah! a big ‘if.’ Do you know, I’m rather uneasy about Evelyn.”
“Why? I thought he was getting on so well.”
“He is as far as painting goes. They think very highly of him. But the moment he gets a couple of hundred pounds he buys a motor-car or something, and next week his watch is in pawn. Now, when you are twenty-five, it is time to stop doing that.”
“I know,” said Mrs. Home. “He is dreadful! Last time he was here he gave me a pearl-brooch that must have cost him fifty pounds.”
“That was to induce you to run away with him,” remarked Philip. “That was quite understood, and I think you behaved rather badly in not doing so.”
“Philip, you mustn’t!”
“No, nor must you! And now I’m going on the river. If I get drowned it will be your fault for having suggested it.”
“Ah, do be careful in those locks,” said Mrs. Home. “I get so nervous always when the water goes down and down.”
“There’s more chance of getting drowned when it goes up and up,” said her son, kissing her on the forehead as he passed her chair.
Philip Home at the age of thirty-one was, perhaps, as successful a man of his age as any in the financial world. His father, the head of one of the big South African houses, had died some five years before, and since then the burden of a very large and prosperous house had rested almost entirely on his shoulders, which physically as well as morally were broad. But he combined in an extraordinary degree the dash and initiative of youth with a cool-headedness and sobriety of judgment which, in general is not achieved until something of the fire of the other is lost, and his management was both brilliant and safe. Yet, as must always happen, the habit of mind necessary to the successful conduct of large financial interests, which among other ingredients is made up of incessant watchfulness and a certain hardness in judging and acting, had, it must be confessed, somewhat tinged his whole character, and the world in general was right in its estimate of him as a man who was rather brusque and unsympathetic, a man with an iron hand who did not always even remember to put on the velvet glove. This was a perfectly just conclusion as far as the world in general, that is to say, the world of mere acquaintances, was concerned, and Philip’s fine collection of prints was considered to be regarded by him as an investment rather than a joy. They made the same judgment about his garden, thinking that the rarity of plants was a quality more highly-prized by him than their beauty. But where the world in general did him an injustice was that they did not allow for a circle which, though small, was far more intimate and vastly more competent to form the true estimate of the man than they, the circle of friends. These were four in number—his mother, Madge Ellington, namely—and the two men to whom allusion has already been made, namely—the Hermit and Evelyn Dundas. They saw, all four of them, a perfectly different Philip to him who somewhat elbowed his way through the uninteresting ranks of acquaintances, or sat, detached from the real essential man, in his orderly office, harsh-faced, unsmiling and absorbed. And this essential Philip in his own sanctum, where only these four ever came, was, indeed, a very lovable and eager personage; and though the world did not know it, his prints really hung there, and in the windows his flowers blossomed. But few were admitted there, and those only not on business.
So this very efficient person, if we rate efficiency, as seems to be the fashion, by the amount of income-tax annually harvested by the State, left the shade of the house and his mother sitting there, whistled for the two fox-terriers that lay dozing in the shade and went off towards the river. The smile which he wore when in his sanctum of intimates still lingered on his face as he passed down the stone steps to the croquet lawn below, but then it faded. Nor did the gardener who was mowing the lawn smile.
“I gave orders it was to be mown yesterday morning,” said Philip; “and it is only half done yet. Did you receive those orders or not?”
The man, a huge young Hercules, touched his cap.
“Yes, sir; at least——”
“There is no ‘at least,’” said Philip. “If you can’t do as you are told you will have to go.”
And he whistled—that Philip who was a parody of himself—to the dogs, and went on.
But before he had got down to the river the official Philip had dispersed, mistlike, in the glorious golden blaze of the summer afternoon, and the man his mother knew (she would scarcely, indeed, have recognised the other) had taken his place again, and as he rowed lazily down the river he gave himself up to mere receptivity of the full-blown beauty that was shed broadcast on sky and land and water. The spring had long been backward and wet, but now the pitiless rains of April bore a glorious and iridescent fruit. Brimful ran the stream from bank to bank, one sheet of untarnished crystal, reflecting the luminous turquoise of the sky. To his right stretched meadows all golden with the flowering of the buttercup; and cattle, knee-deep in the feathery foliage, grazed contentedly, or stood in the shallows of the river to drink, breathing out long soft breaths of kine-fragrance. Between the fields stood elms, stalwart towers of innumerable leaf, and a little way below the red roofs of Pangbourne nestled among red and white flowering thorns. One such tree, a cascade of crimson blossom, grew near the river brink, and Philip paused on his oars a moment as he passed, for the sprays of colour were outlined by the vivid blue of the sky, and on either side stretched the incredible gold of the buttercups. No artist dared have painted that, yet how simple and how triumphantly successful! To the left the sun was just sinking beneath the high lines of wooded hills, and already the tide of clear warm shadow was beginning to advance across the stream. In the woods that covered the hills every shade of green, from the pale milkiness of young beech to the dark velvet of the oak, were mingled together, and glowed as if lit from within with the flakes of sunlight that filtered through the leaves. But that divine restfulness of various green was, somehow less to Philip’s mind than the shouting colours of the sunlit fields. For the tides of life, the strong, sweeping currents of vitality, of love, of the work without which the active brain grows hungry and starves, were dashing in headstrong race within him, and rest and tranquility and soft brooding over what has been seemed to him a poor substitute for the eager harvesting of youth. His sickle was in his hand, and he pressed eagerly forward through the ripening corn of life that fell in swathes to his sweeping strokes.
The little party who were assembling at his house that afternoon were to stay with him a week of Whitsuntide. He would, he expected, be probably obliged to go up to London for the inside of the last two days of their stay, but he had managed—chiefly by means of working some sixteen hours out of the twenty-four during the last week—to secure for himself five days of complete holiday. Like a wise man, he had refused to pepper his house with mere acquaintances when friends were there, and with only one out of his four guests did he, like his mother, not feel on terms of intimacy. Her presence, however, as Madge’s mother, was a matter of necessity, and Philip did not hide from himself the fact that she certainly favoured his suit. For Lady Ellington, as Mrs. Home had already remarked, was a very practical woman, and it seemed to her, in her own phrasing, that Madge could scarcely “do better.” Her practical sense, it may be remarked, was like an all-fitting handle with a smart steel spring which grasped whatever was presented to it in firm tentacles; and the proper way of sweeping carpets, the right board wages for scullery-maids, the correct lead with doubled no trumps at bridge, were as clearly defined in her mind as the desirability of wealth in sons’-in-law. She was, it may be added, extremely generous with advice, being anxious to lay open to all the world the multifarious discoveries of her master-mind.
Lady Ellington was certainly a very handsome woman, and the passage of the glacier of years over her face and her mind had produced hardly any striations either on the one or the other. Her bodily health was superb, and she took the utmost care of it; while, since one of her most constantly applied maxims was to let no sadness or worry weigh on her, her mind had by this time become something like a very hard, bright, polished globe which it was impossible to dint or damage. She had strolled after tea with her hostess and Madge to the croquet lawn, leaving Evelyn Dundas and Tom Merivale to smoke and await Philip’s return from the river. The gardener there was still engaged in his belated mowing, and Lady Ellington examined the cutter with a magisterial air.
“Very old-fashioned and heavy,” she said. “You should get the new light American type. It does far more work, and a boy with it can get through what it takes a man to do with a heavier machine. How many gardeners do you keep, Mrs. Home.”
The poor lady shook her head.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “How many are there of you, Hawkins?”
Lady Ellington sniffed rather contemptuously.
“The labour-sheet will tell you,” she said. “Why are there no flower borders on this lawn?”
“Ah, that is Philip’s plan,” said his mother, delighted to be able to refer the inquisitor to another source. “He says that they get so trampled by people looking for balls.”
“I should have thought wire-netting would have obviated that,” said Lady Ellington. “Under the north wall there is an excellent aspect. Personally, I should put bulbs here. And the rose garden is below, is it not? Certainly Mr. Home keeps his garden in fairly good order.”
This concession, though not altogether unqualified, was fully appreciated by Mrs. Home.
“I’m sure he spends enough on it,” she said.
Lady Ellington laughed.
“That is the surest way of getting satisfactory results,” she said. “It is all nonsense to say that flowers do best in the gardens of those that love them, unless that love takes the practical form of spending money on them. And in the latter case, they do equally well if you hate them!”
This was in the best Ellingtonian manner, hard and clean-cut and glittering—there was nothing foggy about it—and it represented very fairly Lady Ellington’s method of dealing with life. Love or hatred did not seem to her to matter very particularly; the dinner of herbs, at any rate, in the house of love was markedly less attractive to her than the well-ordered house of hate, and she could do without friends better than without a motor-car. She had had rather a hard tussel with life, and shrewd blows had been given on both sides; she had lost her money and her husband during the last few years, and, being without a son, the title and estates had gone to her husband’s nephew, a man for whom for years she had felt, and indeed shown, an extreme dislike. Her jointure was narrow, and she had only got her motor-car by the simple expedient of ordering it but not paying for it. But of the two combatants—life and herself—life was at last beginning to get the worst of it. Certain speculations she had lately indulged in had brought her in money, and if once she could marry her daughter to Philip, she felt that this would be a knock-down blow to life, and her struggles on this side of the grave would be over. What might happen on the other side concerned her very little.
Madge meantime, while this short cross-examination had been going on, strolled a little behind the other two, with a faint smile of amusement in her eyes. She had inherited all her mother’s beauty, and dark violet eyes glowed beneath her black lashes. Her nose was a little tip-tilted, as if raised in curiosity about things in general, but her mouth somewhat contradicted that, for it drooped a little at the corners, as if to imply that her curiosity when satisfied proved rather disappointing. Curiosity and a shade of contempt, indeed, were the emotions most strongly in evidence on her face, and the observer—allowing that features may represent the character of their owner rather than that of her ancestry—would perhaps conclude that her habitual view of the world was of the kind that tends to laugh at rather than with that admirable comedy. Otherwise her face was strangely sexless; it was, indeed, more the face of a boy than of a girl. Even among tall women she was tall, and by her side Mrs. Home looked more than ever like a figure of Dresden china.
Lady Ellington after her sympathetic remark about flowers, turned to her daughter.
“Well situated, is it not, Madge?” she said. “And the river is below there. You will be all day on it, I expect, if Mr. Home is kind enough to take you. And who else is here, Mrs. Home?”
“Ah, there is no party at all, I am afraid,” said she. “Philip said that acquaintances mix so badly with friends. Only Mr. Dundas and Mr. Merivale.”
Lady Ellington thought this over for a moment, and the conclusion apparently was most satisfactory.
“That is charming of him!” she said. “It is always a compliment to be asked to a small party; whereas, if you have a houseful it doesn’t matter who is there. Dear me, those roses should be cut much further back, if they are to do any good. But it is quite true; if one asks friends and acquaintances together, the friends always wonder why the acquaintances have been asked, and the acquaintances are disgusted that nobody takes any notice of them. And I particularly want your son’s advice on some shares I have lately purchased. Mr. Dundas, too—I am so glad to meet him. They say his portraits are going up in price so. I wonder if he could be induced—just a little sketch—— Ah, there is Mr. Home coming up from the river. I wonder why he wears a dark coat on so hot a day?”
A little curiosity perhaps lingered in Madge’s face when she met Philip, and certainly the contempt all vanished. She had a great respect and liking for him, and her whole expression brightened when she saw him. Then after greetings they strolled on, the two elder ladies in front.
“Mother has a great many questions to ask you,” she said to him in a gentle, slow, but very audible voice. “She wants to know how many gardeners you have, why you don’t cut your roses back and something about South African mines.”
Philip’s habit of neatness and instinct of gardening led him to stop a moment and nip off a couple of ill-localised buds from a rose. In effect the two others got a little further ahead of them. This may or may not have been intentional.
“All my information is at her service,” he said—“particularly on the subject of roses, about which I know more than South African mines.”
“And care more!” suggested Madge.
“Infinitely more. Are they not clearly more attractive?”
Madge looked at him curiously.
“I believe you really think so,” she said. “And that is so odd. Doesn’t the scheming, the calculation, the foresight required in financial things interest you enormously?”
“Certainly; but I scheme just as much over the roses. Whether this one is to have—well, a whisky-and-soda, or whether it is rheumatic and wants a lowering treatment; that is just as interesting in itself as whether South Africans want lowering or screwing up.”
“You mean you can do that? You can send things up or down? You can say to us, to mother: ‘You shall be poorer to-morrow or richer’?”
“I suppose so, to some extent. Pray don’t let us talk about it. It sounds rather brutal, and I am afraid it is brutalising. Yet, after all, a landlord may put up the rent of his houses.”
Madge Ellington walked on for a few paces without replying.
“How odd of you,” she said at length, “not to feel the fascination of power. I don’t mean to say that one would necessarily want to use it, but it must be so divine to know it is there. Well, if you wish, I won’t talk about it.”
Philip turned to her, his brown thin face looking suddenly eager.
“Ah, I would sooner hear you talk about what you please than about what I please,” he said.
“Can’t I manage to combine the two?” she said. “The river, for instance, I think we both love that. Will you promise to let me live on the river while I am here?”
“I warn you that you will have a good deal of my company, then,” said he.
She laughed again.
“But as you are my host I can’t decently object,” she said. “Oh, tell me, Mr. Home, what is Mr. Dundas like? You are a great friend of his, are you not? He was at tea, and asked a series of the silliest riddles, which somehow made me giggle. Giggle hopelessly, do you understand; they were so stupid. And he is the Mr. Dundas, who paints everybody as if they were so much more interesting than they are?”
“Yes, evidently the same,” said Philip. “And what you say is quite true. Yet, again, as you say, his conversation is futile beyond words.”
Madge walked on again in silence a little.
“I think that combination is rather charming,” she said. “People don’t laugh enough, and certainly he makes one laugh. I wish I laughed more, for instance.”
“And has Merivale come?” asked Philip.
“Yes; he was at tea, too. What does he do?”
“He doesn’t do anything. He just thinks.”
“Good heavens! How frightfully fatiguing. All the time, do you mean?”
“Yes, all the time. Have you never met him before? Yet, how should you? He lives in the New Forest, and communes with birds and animals. People think he is mad, but he is the sanest person I know.”
“Why?” asked she.
“Because he has had the wit to find out what he likes, and to do it all the time.”
“And what is that?” asked the girl.
“He sits by a stream and looks at the water. Then he lies on his back and looks at the sky. Then he whistles, chuckles, what you please to call it, and the thrushes come scudding out of the bushes and chuckle back at him.”
“Is that not rather uncanny?” asked Madge.
“Most uncanny. Some day, as I tell him, he will see Pan. And I shall then have to attend a funeral.”
The girl’s eyebrows wrinkled into a frown.
“Pan?” she said.
“Yes; he is the God of ‘Go as you please!’ And his temple is a lunatic asylum. But don’t be alarmed. The Hermit won’t go into a lunatic asylum yet awhile.”
“Yes, the Hermit is Merivale. Because he lives quite alone in the New Forest. He never reads, he hardly ever sees anybody, he never does anything. He used to write at one time.”
Madge shivered slightly.
“How intensely uncomfortable!” she said. “I think I shall like Mr. Dundas best.”
“You are sure to like him.”
“Because everybody does? That is the worst of reasons. I always distrust very popular people.”
“The judgment of the world is usually wrong, you mean. But occasionally one stumbles on an exception.”
The four had turned back towards the house, and as Philip spoke, he and his companion gained the top step of the gravelled square bordered by flower-beds, where he had sat two hours ago with his mother. The shadow of the house had swung over it, and in the gathering dusk the flower-beds glowed with a dim subaqueous radiance. Philip’s mother and Lady Ellington had already passed into the open French window of the drawing-room, but on the stout balustrade of the terrace there sat a young man. One long slim leg rested on the gravel, the other was crooked round the lead vase at the head of the steps. His face, extraordinarily boyish, was clean-shaven, or rather so boyish was it, that it looked as if it was still untouched by razor. He held a cigarette in one hand, and the other, long-fingered and white as a woman’s, grasped his knee.
“Oh, Philip!” he cried; “how are you? Oddly enough, I am quite well. I always was, like Sydney Smith and his great coat. Isn’t there time for a game of croquet before dinner? Let’s all be late, and so we shall all be punctual; it is only a question of degree. Miss Ellington, do come and play. Why did the barmaid champagne, and—oh, I asked you that. Stout, porter is rather good though. I do believe you know it, Philip.”
TOM MERIVALE did not, as Mrs. Home had feared he might, appear without clothes at dinner, nor did he make clamorous demands for cabbage. It is true that he ate no meat of any kind, but he was not of the preaching sort of vegetarians, and did not call attention to his abstinence. Instead, he and Evelyn Dundas between them managed to turn the meal into a ridiculous piece of gaiety by sheer exuberance of animal spirits, and even Lady Ellington forgot to examine the dishes with her usual magisterial air, and really ate and drank without criticising.
There was an extraordinary superficial resemblance in certain ways between the two men. Both, at any rate, were glorious examples of the happiness that springs from health, a happiness which is as inimitable as it is contagious. By health, it must be premised, is not meant the mere absence of definite ailments, but that perfect poise between an active mind and an exuberant body which is so rare.
It was on this very subject that Merivale was speaking now.
“Ah, no, Lady Ellington,” he was saying, “to be able to get through the day’s work, day after day and year after year, is not health. Perfect health implies practically perfect happiness.”
“But how if you have a definite cause of worry?” she said.
“You can’t worry when you are well. One knows, for example, that if one is definitely unwell, the same cause produces greater worry and discomfort than if one is not. And my theory is, that if one is absolutely well, if your mind and soul, that is to say, as well as your body, are all in accord with each other and with their environment, worry is impossible.”
Lady Ellington, to do her justice, always listened to that were really new to her. She always assumed, by the way, that they were not.
“My theory exactly,” she said. “I could scarcely have lived through these last years unless I had made up my mind never to let any anxiety take hold of me.”
Evelyn Dundas laughed. Dinner was nearing its end and conversation was general.
“My mind and my body are not in absolute accord this moment,” he said, “and I am rather anxious. My body demands some more ice-pudding; my mind tells me it would be extremely unwise. Which am I to listen to, Tom?”
“Give Mr. Dundas some more ice-pudding,” remarked Philip to a footman.
“The laws of hospitality compel me to fall in with my host’s suggestions,” said Evelyn. “Tom, where you are wrong lies in thinking that it is worth while spending all your time in keeping well. He lives in the New Forest, Lady Ellington, and if when you are passing you hear the puffs of a loud steam-engine somewhere near Brockenhurst you will know it is Tom doing deep breathing. He expects in time to become a Ram-jam or something, by breathing himself into Raj-pan-puta.”
Tom Merivale laughed.
“No, I don’t want to become a Ram-jam,” he said, “whatever that may be. I want to become myself.”
“No clothes,” murmured Mrs. Home.
“Become yourself?” asked Lady Ellington.
“Yes, most of us are stunted copies of our real selves,” he said. “Imitations of what we might be. And what might one not be?”
The talk had got for him, at any rate, suddenly serious, and he looked up at Lady Ellington with a sparkling eye.
“Explain,” she said.
“Well, it seems to me one cripples oneself in so many ways. One allows oneself to be nervous, and to be angry, and to be bound by conventions that are useless and cramping.”
“Tall hats, frock-coats?” asked she.
“No, certainly not, because they, at any rate, are perfectly harmless. But, to take an example of what I mean, it seems to me a ridiculous convention that we should all consider ourselves obliged to know what is going on in the world. It does not really do one any good to know that there is war between China and Japan. What does do us good is not to be ill-tempered, and never to be sad. Sadness and pessimism are the worst forms of mental disease I know. And the state will not put sad and pessimistic people in asylums, or isolate them at any rate so that their disease should not spread. Such diseases are so frightfully catching, and they are more fatal than fevers. People die of them, soul and body!”
Lady Ellington felt that Mrs. Home was collecting her eye, and rose.
“What a fascinating theory,” she said. “Just what I have always thought. Ah, I have caught my dress under my chair. You should have castors, Mr. Home, on your dining-room chairs.”
* * * * * * *
Evelyn moved up next to Tom Merivale after the others had left them.
“Dear old Hermit!” he said. “Now, you’ve got to give an account of yourself. Neither Phil nor I have seen you for a year. What have you been doing?”
Tom let the port pass him.
“I suppose you would call it nothing,” said he.
“Ah, but in real life people don’t go and live in the New Forest and do nothing. What have you written in the last year?”
“Not one line. Seriously, I have been doing nothing except a little gardening and carpentering; just manual labour to keep one sane.”’
“Well, it looks as if it suited you. You look well enough, and what is so odd, you look so much younger.”
Tom laughed again.
“Ah, that strikes you, does it?” he said. “I suppose it could not have been otherwise, though that wasn’t my object in going to live there.”
“Well, tell us, then!” said Evelyn, rather impatiently. He had begun to smoke, and smoked in a most characteristic manner; that is to say, that in little more than a minute his cigarette was consumed down one side, and was a peninsula of charred paper down the other, while clouds of smoke ascended from it. Perceiving this, he instantly lit another one.
But Philip rose.
“Tell us afterwards, Tom,” he said. “Lady Ellington likes to play bridge, I know, as soon as dinner is over.”
Evelyn rose also.
“Ah, she is like me,” he said. “She wants to do things not soon, but immediately, Philip, how awfully pretty Miss Ellington is. Why wasn’t I told? I should like to paint her.”
Philip paused by the door.
“Really, do you mean that?” he said. “And have you got time? I hear you always have more orders than you can ever get through.”
Evelyn tossed his head with a quick, petulant gesture.
“You talk as if I was a tailor,” he said. “But you suggest to me the advisability of my getting apprentices to paint the uninteresting people for me, and I will sign them. That would satisfy a lot of them. Yes, I have more than I can do. But I could do Miss Ellington remarkably well. Shall I ask her to sit for me?”
“That would be rather original, the first time you saw her.”
“A good reason for doing it,” said Evelyn, hastily drinking another glass of port.
“But it would certainly give her a good reason for saying ‘No,’” remarked Philip.
Madge, it appeared, did not play bridge; her mother, at any rate, said she did not, and Evelyn Dundas, rather to his satisfaction, cut out. That feat happily accomplished, he addressed himself to Madge.
“Fancy a hermit playing bridge!” he said. “Does it not seem to you very inconsistent? Patience is the furthest he has any right to go.”
Madge got up.
“Patience, both in cards and in real life, seems to me a very poor affair,” she said. “How are we going to amuse ourselves while they play? Will you go out of the room while I think of something, and then you can come in and guess it?”
An amendment occurred to Evelyn.
“We might both go out,” he said. “It is deliciously warm; just out on to the terrace.”
“And when we come in they can guess where we have been,” said Madge.
The night, as he had said, was deliciously warm, and the moon, a day or two only from full, shone with a very clear light. Below them lay the dim, huddled woods, and beyond, shining like a streak of silver, slept the Thames. Somewhere far away a train was panting along its iron road, and to the left scattered lights showed where Pangbourne stood. Odours of flowers were wafted from the beds, and pale-winged moths now and then crossed the illuminated spaces of light thrown by the drawing-room window on to the gravel.
“Ah, what a pity to be indoors!” said the girl as they stepped out. “I suppose I must be of Gipsy blood; I always want to go somewhere.”
“Where particularly?” asked he.
“That doesn’t matter; the going is the point. If you asked me to go to the Black Hole of Calcutta I should probably say ‘Yes.’ What a pity we can’t go on the river!”
“Ah, let us do that!” said he.
“It would be quite unheard-of,” she said. “I don’t live in the New Forest like Mr. Merivale, and cast conventions aside. No, we will walk up and down a little, and then you shall go and play. Do you know, I am really so pleased to have met you I have admired your pictures so. Do you find it a bore having that sort of thing said to you?”
Evelyn thought over this for a moment.
“Well, I think my pictures bore me when they are done,” he said, “though the opinion of other people never does. A picture is—is like a cold in the head. It possesses you while it is there, and you have to throw it off. And when it is thrown off, one never thinks of it again. At least, I don’t.”
They had come to the end of the terrace, and the girl stopped as they turned.
“And then you do another. Ah, how delightful to know that probably to the end of your life you will have things to do!”
“I don’t think you would say that if you had to do them,” said he. “Yet, I don’t know. Of course creating a thing is the biggest fun in the world. But how one tears one’s hair over it!”
Madge looked at his thick black thatch.
“You seem to have got some left,” she remarked.
“Yes, but I’m looking thinner. Mrs. Home told me so. Oh, look at the moon! What a dreadful thing to say, too! But it really is out of drawing—it is far too big!”
“Perhaps we are far too small,” said she.
Evelyn shook his head.
“It is impossible to be small if that occurs to you,” he said.
They walked in silence after this for a dozen yards or so, Madge feeling, somehow, strangely attracted by her companion. There was nothing, it is true, particularly brilliant about his conversation; it was boyish rather than brilliant; but she felt, as most people did, that she was in the presence of a personality that was rather unusual. And this personality seemed to her to be very faithfully expressed in his pictures; there was something daringly simple about both him and them. He evidently said whatever came into his head, and her experience was that so many people only talked about such things as were supposed to be of interest. Also, in spite of this moonlight solitude, he evinced not the smallest tendency to notice the fact that she was a very good-looking girl; no hint of it appeared in his talk or his attitude to her. There was not the very slightest suspicion of that even in his desire to go on the river with her. That ridiculous suggestion she felt, with unerring instinct, had been made simply from comrade to comrade; there were two of them together, cut out from a table of bridge, and he had proposed it just as he might have proposed it to a man, instead of a girl, of his own age. And to Madge this was something of an exception in her experience of the other sex, for most unmarried men of her acquaintance had shown a tendency towards tenderness. Her beauty made it perhaps excusable in them, but she found it rather trying. It was a relief, at any rate, to find a young man who took her frankly, who could say “Look at the moon,” only to point out that it was out of drawing. For in the matter of emotion Madge was strangely unfeeling, or, at any rate, strangely undeveloped; and if her mother had let any anxiety dwell upon her hard and polished mind, the doubts about Madge’s future would, perhaps, have pressed as heavily there as any. As a good mother should, she had brought to her daughter’s notice, not to say thrown at her head, a large variety of young men, to none of whom had Madge responded at all satisfactorily. And it was almost intensely pleasing to her at this moment to find someone matrimonially quite impossible to her mother’s mind, who was both so attractive to her personally, and who did not show the smallest desire to treat her otherwise than a man should treat a man. He was perfectly natural, in fact, perfectly simple, and quite an exception to her experience of moonlight walkers. And this paragon continued his peerless way.
“Have you met Tom Merivale before?” he asked. “No? Of course he would think it almost profane to say the moon was too large. He takes any fact in nature and then proceeds to fit himself to it. Whatever untutored nature does is right, in his view. I wonder what he would make of slugs eating the faces of pansies slowly away. I shall ask him.”
Madge gave a little shriek of horror.
“That is one of the facts of life which I can’t get over,” she said. “I can’t reconcile myself to wanton destruction of beauty. Oh, there is so little in the world.”
Now, there is a particular mental sensation which corresponds to the physical sensation of stepping up a step when there is no step there. Evelyn felt this now.
She had gone suddenly into vacancy, with a thump.
“What do you mean?” he said. “I should have thought there was so much there that one was bewildered. Surely almost everything is beautiful.”
“Do you really think that?” she asked.
“Why, of course. But the trouble is that one has not wits enough to see it. And all beauty is equal—woman, man, mountain-side, pansy. And probably slug,” he added. “But to appreciate that would require a great deal of insight. But Sir John Lubbock says that earwigs are excellent mothers. That opened my eyes to earwigs.”
Again Madge walked on in silence for a space.
“Are you ever bored?” she asked at length.
“Bored? No. All that anyone has ever made is at one’s disposal to wonder at. And if one can’t do that, one can go and make something oneself. No, I hope I shall have the grace to commit suicide before I am bored.”
Madge stopped and turned to him. That she was being unwise she knew, but something intimate and indwelling dictated to her.
“I am bored every day of my life!” she said. “And how can I avoid it? Is it very stupid of me?”
Evelyn did not hesitate in his reply.
“Yes, very!” he said. “Because it is such a waste of time to be bored. People don’t recollect that.”
They had come opposite the drawing-room window, and as they passed Lady Ellington stepped out on to the terrace.
“Is that you, Madge?” she asked.
Even in the darkness Evelyn knew what had happened to Madge’s face. The fall of it was reflected in her voice.
“Yes; have you finished your bridge?” she asked.
“We are waiting for Mr.—Mr. Dundas to cut in,” she said. “Mr. Home thought he was in the smoking-room, and has gone there.”
“Oh, I am not in the smoking-room,” said Evelyn.
If one judged by definitions given in dictionaries it would probably be a misuse of language to say that Lady Ellington “played” bridge. Cards were dealt her, and she dealt with them, embarking on commercial transactions. She assessed the value of her hand with far more accuracy than she had ever brought to play on the assessment of her income-tax, and proceeded to deal with her assets with even more acuteness than she was accustomed to dispose on the expenditure of her income. Mrs. Home had silently entreated Philip to allow her to cut out, and Lady Ellington was left to play with three men. This she always enjoyed, because she took full advantage of the slight concessions which were allowed to her sex if no other woman was of the table. But before embarking on the second rubber she turned to Madge.
“I want to speak to you, dearest,” she said, “before you go to bed. We shall only play a couple more rubbers. Mr. Home, you really ought to have pneumatic cards; they are a little more expensive, but last so much longer—yes, two more rubbers—I go no trumps—and I will come to your room on my way up. No doubling? Thank you, partner; that is the suit I wanted.”
Philip, who was her partner, had exposed two excellent suits, so the imagination of the others might run riot over which particular suit was the desire of Lady Ellington. At any rate she scored a little slam, but was not satisfied, and turned on Evelyn, who, it is idle to remark, had talked during the play.
“I missed a nine,” she said. “Mr. Dundas was saying something very amusing.”
But as her face had been like flint, Mr. Dundas had to draw the inference that, however amusing, she had not been amused.
Lady Ellington always kept the score herself, and never showed any signs of moving, if she had won, until accounts had been adjusted and paid. To-night affairs had gone prosperously for her; she was gracious in her “good-nights,” and even commended the admirable temperature of the hot water, a glass of which she always sipped before going to bed. Madge had gone upstairs, but not long before; and her mother, having locked her winnings into her dressing-case, came to her room and found her sitting by the open window, still not yet preparing to go to bed.
“Do I understand that you walked on the terrace alone with Mr. Dundas?” she asked in a peculiarly chilly voice.
Madge showed no surprise; she had known what was coming.
“Yes, we took a turn or two,” she said.
Her mother sat down; Madge had not turned from the window and was still looking out.
“Kindly attend, Madge,” she said. “It was very indiscreet, and you know it. I don’t think Mr. Home liked it.”
Of the girl who had talked so eagerly and naturally to Evelyn on the terrace there was hardly a trace; Madge’s face had grown nearly as hard as her mother’s.
“I am not bound just yet to do all Mr. Home likes,” she said.
“You are bound, if you are a sensible creature, at all events not to run any risks, especially now.”
Madge turned away from the window.
“You mean until the bargain is completed. Supposing I refuse?” she said, and there was a little tremor in her voice, partly of contempt, partly of fear.
Lady Ellington, as has been remarked, never let her emotions, however justifiable, run away with her; she never, above all, got hot or angry. Causes which in others would produce anger, produced in her only an additional coldness and dryness, which Madge was, somehow, afraid of with unreasoning nightmare kind of fear.
“I will not suppose anything so absurd!” said her mother. “You are twenty-five years old, and you have never yet fallen in love at all. But as I have pointed out to you before, you will be far happier married than living on into the loneliness and insignificance of being an old maid. Lots of girls never fall in love in the silly, sentimental manner which produces lyrics. You are quite certainly one of them. And as certainly Mr. Home is in love with you.”
“We have been into this before,” said the girl.
“It is necessary, apparently, to go into it again. Mr. Home, I feel certain, is going to propose to you, and you should not do indiscreet things. With regard to your refusing him, it is out of the question. He is extremely suitable in every way. And you told me yourself you had made up your mind to accept him.”
“You made up my mind,” said Madge; “but it comes to the same thing.”
“Precisely. So please promise me not to do anything which a girl in your position should not do. There is no earthly harm in your walking with any penniless artist in the moonlight, if you were not situated as you are. But at the moment it is indiscreet.”
“You are wrong if you suppose that Mr. Dundas said anything to me which could possibly be interpreted into a tender interest,” said Madge. “He called attention to the moon merely in order to remark that it was out of drawing.”
“That never occurred to me,” said her mother, “though it would be a matter of total indifference whether he took a tender interest in you or not. I merely want your promise that you will not repeat the indiscretion.”
“Oh, certainly,” said Madge.
Lady Ellington had put her bedroom candle on Madge’s dressing-table. As soon as she had received the assurance she required, she at once rose from her chair and took it up. But with it in her hand she stood silent a moment, then she put it down again.
“You have spoken again of things I thought were settled, Madge,” she said, “and I should like your assurance on one point further. We agreed, did we not, that it would be far better for you to marry than remain single. We agreed also that you were not of the sort of nature that falls passionately in love, and we agreed that you had better marry a man whom you thoroughly like and esteem. Mr. Home is such a man. Is that correctly stated?”
“Quite,” said Madge. “In fact, I don’t know why I suggested that I should refuse him.”
“You agree to it all still?”
Madge considered a moment.
“Yes; things being as they are, I agree.”
“What do you mean by that exactly?”
Madge got up, and swept across the room to where her mother stood.
“I have long meant to say this to you, mother,” she said, “but I never have yet. I mean that at my age one’s character to some extent certainly is formed. One has to deal with oneself as that self exists. But my character was formed by education partly and by my upbringing, for which you are responsible. I think you have taught me not to feel—to be hard.”
Lady Ellington did not resent this in the slightest; indeed, it was part of her plan of life never to resent what anybody did or said; for going back to first principles, resentment was generally so useless.
“I hope I have taught you to be sensible,” she remarked.
“It seems to me I am being very sensible now,” said Madge, “and you may certainly take all the credit of that, if you wish. I fully intend to do, at any rate, exactly what you suggest—to accept, that is to say, a man whom I both esteem and respect, and who is thoroughly suitable. For suitable let us say wealthy—because that is what we mean.”
Lady Ellington qualified this.
“I should not wish you to marry a cad, however wealthy,” she said.
Madge moved softly up and down the room, her dress whispering on the carpet before she replied.
“And it does not strike you that this is rather a cold-blooded proceeding?” she asked.
“It would if you were in love with somebody else. In which case I should not recommend you to marry Mr. Home. But as it is, it is the most sensible thing you can do. I would go further than that; I should say it was your duty.”
Again Madge walked up and down without replying at once.
“Ah, it is cold-blooded,” she said, “and I am doing it because I am cold-blooded.”
Then she stopped opposite her mother.
“Mother, when other girls fall in love, do they only feel like this?” she asked. “Is this all? Just to feel that for the rest of one’s life one will always have a very pleasant companion in the house, who, I am sure, will always deserve one’s liking and esteem?”
Lady Ellington laughed.
“My dear, I can’t say what other girls feel. But, as you remark, it is all you feel. You are twenty-five years old, and you have never fallen in love. As you say, you have to take yourself as you are. Good night, dear. It is very late.”
She kissed her, left her, and went down the passage to her own room. She was a very consistent woman, and it was not in the slightest degree likely that she should distrust the very sensible train of reasoning which she had indicated to her daughter, which also she had held for years, that a sensible marriage is the best policy in which to invest a daughter’s happiness. Lady Ellington’s own experience, indeed, supplied her with evidence to support her view, for she herself was an excellent case in point, for her husband had been a man with whom she had never been the least in love, but with whom, on the other hand, she had managed to be very happy in a cast-iron sort of way. She felt, indeed, quite sure, in her reasonable mind, that she was acting wisely for Madge, and it was not in her nature to let an unreasonable doubt trouble her peace. But an unreasonable doubt was there, and it was this, that Madge for the first time, as far as she knew, seemed to have contemplated the possibility of passion coming into her life. There had been in her mind, so her mother felt sure, an unasked question—“What if I do fall in love?”
Lady Ellington turned this over in the well-lit chamber of her brain as she went to bed. But her common-sense came to her aid, and she did not lie awake thinking of it. She had made up her mind that such a thing was unlikely to the verge of impossibility, and she never wasted time or thought over what was impossible. Her imagination, it is true, was continually busy over likely combinations; there were, however, so many of these that things unlikely did not concern her.
The men meantime had gone to the smoking-room, and from there had moved out in general quest of coolness on to the terrace. The moon had risen nearly to the zenith, and no longer offended Evelyn’s sense of proportion, and the night, dusky and warm, disposed to personal talk. And since neither Evelyn nor Philip had seen Tom Merivale for a year, it was he who had first to be brought up to date.
“So go on with what you were saying at dinner, Tom,” said Evelyn. “Really, people who are friends ought to keep a sort of circulating magazine, in which they write themselves up and send it round to the circle. In any case, you of the three of us are most in arrears. What have you done besides growing so much younger?”
“Do you really want to know?” asked he.
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