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The sea was very calm. There was no ship in sight, and the sea-gulls were motionless upon its even greyness. The sky was dark with lowering clouds, but there was no wind. The line of the horizon was clear and delicate. The shingly beach, no less deserted, was thick with tangled seaweed, and the innumerable shells crumbled under the feet that trod them. The breakwaters, which sought to prevent the unceasing encroachment of the waves, were rotten with age and green with the sea-slime. It was a desolate scene, but there was a restfulness in its melancholy; and the great silence, the suave monotony of colour, might have given peace to a heart that was troubled.
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William Somerset Maugham
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2018
Copyright © 2018 Sovereign Classic
All rights reserved.
The sea was very calm. There was no ship in sight, and the sea-gulls were motionless upon its even greyness. The sky was dark with lowering clouds, but there was no wind. The line of the horizon was clear and delicate. The shingly beach, no less deserted, was thick with tangled seaweed, and the innumerable shells crumbled under the feet that trod them. The breakwaters, which sought to prevent the unceasing encroachment of the waves, were rotten with age and green with the sea-slime. It was a desolate scene, but there was a restfulness in its melancholy; and the great silence, the suave monotony of colour, might have given peace to a heart that was troubled. They could not assuage the torment of the woman who stood alone upon that spot. She did not stir; and, though her gaze was steadfast, she saw nothing. Nature has neither love nor hate, and with indifference smiles upon the light at heart and to the heavy brings a deeper sorrow. It is a great irony that the old Greek, so wise and prudent, who fancied that the gods lived utterly apart from human passions, divinely unconscious in their high palaces of the grief and joy, the hope and despair, of the turbulent crowd of men, should have gone down to posterity as the apostle of brutish pleasure.
But the silent woman did not look for solace. She had a vehement pride which caused her to seek comfort only in her own heart; and when, against her will, heavy tears rolled down her cheeks, she shook her head impatiently. She drew a long breath and set herself resolutely to change her thoughts.
But they were too compelling, and she could not drive from her mind the memories that absorbed it. Her fancy, like a homing bird, hovered with light wings about another coast; and the sea she looked upon reminded her of another sea. The Solent. From her earliest years that sheet of water had seemed an essential part of her life, and the calmness at her feet brought back to her irresistibly the scenes she knew so well. But the rippling waves washed the shores of Hampshire with a persuasive charm that they had not elsewhere, and the broad expanse of it, lacking the illimitable majesty of the open sea, could be loved like a familiar thing. Yet there was in it, too, something of the salt freshness of the ocean, and, as the eye followed its course, the heart could exult with a sense of freedom. Sometimes, in the dusk of a winter afternoon, she remembered the Solent as desolate as the Kentish sea before her; but her imagination presented it to her more often with the ships, outward bound or homeward bound, that passed continually. She loved them all. She loved the great liners that sped across the ocean, unmindful of wind or weather, with their freight of passengers; and at night, when she recognised them only by the long row of lights, they fascinated her by the mystery of their thousand souls going out strangely into the unknown. She loved the little panting ferries that carried the good folk of the neighbourhood across the water to buy their goods in Southampton, or to sell the produce of their farms; she was intimate with their sturdy skippers, and she delighted in their airs of self-importance. She loved the fishing boats that went out in all weathers, and the neat yachts that fled across the bay with such a dainty grace. She loved the great barques and the brigantines that came in with a majestic ease, all their sails set to catch the remainder of the breeze; they were like wonderful, stately birds, and her soul rejoiced at the sight of them. But best of all she loved the tramps that plodded with a faithful, grim tenacity from port to port; often they were squat and ugly, battered by the tempest, dingy and ill-painted; but her heart went out to them. They touched her because their fate seemed so inglorious. No skipper, new to his craft, could ever admire the beauty of their lines, nor look up at the swelling canvas and exult he knew not why; no passengers would boast of their speed or praise their elegance. They were honest merchantmen, laborious, trustworthy, and of good courage, who took foul weather and peril in the day’s journey and made no outcry. And with a sure instinct she saw the romance in the humble course of their existence and the beauty of an unboasting performance of their duty; and often, as she watched them, her fancy glowed with the thought of the varied merchandise they carried, and their long sojourning in foreign parts. There was a subtle charm in them because they went to Southern seas and white cities with tortuous streets, silent under the blue sky.
Striving still to free herself of a passionate regret, the lonely woman turned away and took a path that led across the marshes. But her heart sank, for she seemed to recognise the flats, the shallow dykes, the coastguard station, which she had known all her life. Sheep were grazing here and there, and two horses, put out to grass, looked at her listlessly as she passed. A cow heavily whisked its tail. To the indifferent, that line of Kentish coast, so level and monotonous, might be merely dull, but to her it was beautiful. It reminded her of the home she would never see again.
And then her thoughts, which had wandered around the house in which she was born, ever touching the fringe as it were, but never quite settling with the full surrender of attention, gave themselves over to it entirely.
Hamlyn’s Purlieu had belonged to the Allertons for three hundred years, and the recumbent effigy, in stone, of the founder of the family’s fortunes, with his two wives in ruffs and stiff martingales, was to be seen in the chancel of the parish church. It was the work of an Italian sculptor, lured to England in company of the craftsmen who made the lady-chapel of Westminster Abbey; and the renaissance delicacy of its work was very grateful in the homely English church. And for three hundred years the Allertons had been men of prudence, courage, and worth, so that the walls of the church by now were filled with the lists of their virtues and their achievements. They had intermarried with the great families of the neighbourhood, and with the help of these marble tablets you might have made out a roll of all that was distinguished in Hampshire. The Maddens of Brise, the Fletchers of Horton Park, the Daunceys of Maiden Hall, the Garrods of Penda, had all, in the course of time, given daughters to the Allertons of Hamlyn’s Purlieu; and the Allertons of Hamlyn’s Purlieu had given in exchange richly dowered maidens to the Garrods of Penda, the Daunceys of Maiden Hall, the Fletchers of Horton Park, and the Maddens of Brise.
And with each generation the Allertons grew prouder. The peculiar situation of their lands distinguished them a little from their neighbours; for, whereas the Garrods, the Daunceys, and the Fletchers lived within walking distance of each other, and Madden of Brise, because of his rank and opulence the most distinguished person in the county, within six or seven miles, Hamlyn’s Purlieu was near the sea and separated by forest land from other places. The seclusion in which its owners were thus forced to dwell differentiated their characters from those of the neighbouring gentlemen. They found much cause for self-esteem in the number of their acres, and, though many of these consisted of salt marshes, and more of wild heath, others were as good as any in Hampshire; and the grand total made a formidable array in works of reference. But they found greater reason still for self-congratulation in their culture. No pride is so great as the pride of intellect, and the Allertons never doubted that their neighbours were boors beside them. Whether it was due to the peculiar lie of the land on which they were born and bred, that led them to introspection, or whether it was due to some accident of inheritance, the Allertons had all an interest in the things of the mind, which had never troubled the Fletchers or the Garrods of Penda, the Daunceys or my lords Madden of Brise. They were as good sportsmen as the others, and hunted or shot with the best of them, but they read books as well, and had a subtlety of intelligence which was no less unexpected than pleasing. The fat squires of the county looked up to them as miracles of learning, and congratulated themselves over their port on possessing in their midst persons who combined, in such excellent proportions, gentle birth and a good seat in the saddle with adequate means and an encyclopedic knowledge. Everything conspired to give the Allertons a good opinion of themselves. They not only looked down from superior heights on the persons with whom they habitually came in contact—that is common enough—but these very persons without question looked up to them.
The Allertons made the grand tour in a style befitting their dignity; and the letters which each son of the house wrote in turn, describing Paris, Vienna, Dresden, Munich, and Rome, with the persons of consequence who entertained him, were preserved with scrupulous care among the family papers. They testified to an agreeable interest in the arts; and each of them had made a point of bringing back with him, according to the fashion of his day, beautiful things which he had purchased on his journey. Hamlyn’s Purlieu, a fine stone house goodly to look upon, was thus filled with Italian pictures, French cabinets of delicate workmanship, bronzes of all kinds, tapestries, and old Eastern carpets. The gardens had been tended with a loving care, and there grew in them trees and flowers which were unknown to other parts of England. Each Allerton in his time cherished the place with a passionate pride, looking upon it as his greatest privilege that he could add a little to its beauty and hand on to his successor a more magnificent heritage.
But at length Hamlyn’s Purlieu came into the hands of Fred Allerton; and the gods, blind for so long to the prosperity of this house, determined now, it seemed, to wreak their malice. Fred Allerton had many of the characteristics of his race, but in him they took a sudden turn which bore him swiftly to destruction. They had been marked always by good looks, a persuasive manner, and a singular liberality of mind; and he was perhaps the handsomest, and certainly the most charming of them all. But the freedom from prejudice which had prevented the others from giving way too much to their pride had in him degenerated into a singular unscrupulousness. His parents died when he was twenty, and a year later he found himself master of a great estate. The times were hard then for those who depended upon their land, and Fred Allerton was not so rich as his forebears. But he flung himself extravagantly into the pursuit of pleasure. He was the only member of his family who had failed to reside habitually at Hamlyn’s Purlieu. He seemed to take no interest in it, and except now and then to shoot, never came near his native county. He lived much in Paris, which in the early years of the third republic had still something of the wanton gaiety of the Empire; and here he soon grew notorious for his prodigality and his adventures. He was an unlucky man, and everything he did led to disaster. But this never impaired his cheerfulness. He boasted that he had lost money in every gambling hell in Europe, and vowed that he would give up racing in disgust if ever a horse of his won a race. His charm of manner was irresistible, and no one had more friends than he. His generosity was great, and he was willing to lend money to everyone who asked. But it is even more expensive to be a man whom everyone likes than to keep a stud, and Fred Allerton found himself in due course much in need of ready money. He did not hesitate to mortgage his lands, and till he came to the end of these resources also, continued gaily to lead a life of splendour.
At length he had raised on Hamlyn’s Purlieu every penny that he could, and was crippled with debt besides; but he still rode a fine horse, lived in expensive chambers, dressed better than any man in London, and gave admirable dinners to all and sundry. He realised then that he could only retrieve his fortunes by a rich marriage. Fred Allerton was still a handsome man, and he knew from long experience how easy it was to say pleasant things to a woman. There was a peculiar light in his blue eyes which persuaded everyone of the goodness of his heart. He was amusing and full of spirits. He fixed upon a Miss Boulger, one of the two daughters of a Liverpool manufacturer, and succeeded after a surprisingly short time in assuring her of his passion. There was a convincing air of truth in all he said, and she returned his flame with readiness. It was clear to him that her sister was equally prepared to fall in love with him, and he regretted with diverting frankness to his more intimate friends that the laws of the land prevented him from marrying them both and acquiring two fortunes instead of one. He married the younger Miss Boulger, and on her dowry paid off the mortgages on Hamlyn’s Purlieu, his own debts, and succeeded for several years in having an excellent time. The poor woman, happily blind to his defects, adored him with all her soul. She trusted him entirely with the management of her money and only regretted that the affairs connected with it kept him so much in town. With marriage and his new connection with commerce Fred Allerton had come to the conclusion that he had business abilities, and he occupied himself thenceforward with all manner of financial schemes. With unwearied enthusiasm he entered upon some new affair which was going to bring him untold wealth as soon as the last had finally sunk into the abyss of bankruptcy. Hamlyn’s Purlieu had never known such gaieties as during the fifteen years of Mrs. Allerton’s married life. All kinds of people were brought down by Fred; and the dignified dining-room, which for centuries had witnessed discussions, learned or flippant, on the merits of Greek and Latin authors, or the excellencies of Italian masters, now heard strange talk of stocks and shares, companies, syndicates, options and holdings. When Mrs. Allerton died suddenly she was entirely unconscious that her husband had squandered every penny of the money which had been settled on her children, had mortgaged once more the broad fields of his ancestors, and was head over ears in debt. She expired with his name upon her lips, and blessed the day on which she had first seen him. She had one son and one daughter. Lucy was a girl of fifteen when her mother died, and George, the boy, was ten.
It was Lucy, now a woman of twenty-five, who turned her back upon the Kentish sea and slowly walked across the marsh. And as she walked, the recollection of the ten years that had passed since then was placed before her as it were in a single Sash.
At first her father had seemed the most wonderful being in the world, and she had worshipped him with all her childish heart. The love that bound her to her mother was pale in comparison, for Lucy could not divide her affections, giving part here, part there; her father, with his wonderful gift of sympathy, his indescribable charm, conquered her entirely. It was her greatest delight to be with him. She was entertained and exhilarated by his society, and she hated the men of business who absorbed so much of his time.
When Mrs. Allerton died George was sent to school, but Lucy, in charge of a governess, remained year in, year out, at Hamlyn’s Purlieu with her books, her dogs, and her horses. And gradually, she knew not how, it was borne in upon her that the father who had seemed such a paragon of chivalry, was weak, unreliable, and shifty. She fought against the suspicions that poisoned her mind, charging herself bitterly with meanness of spirit, but one small incident after another brought the truth home to her. She recognised with a shiver of anguish that his standard of veracity was utterly different from hers. He was not very careful to keep his word. He was not scrupulous in money matters. With her, honesty, truthfulness, exactness in all affairs, were not only instinctive, but deliberate; for the pride of her birth was so great that she felt it incumbent upon her to be ten times more careful in these things than the ordinary run of men.
And then, from a word here and a word there, by horrified guesses and by a kind of instinctive surmise, she realised presently the whole truth of her father’s life. She found out that Hamlyn’s Purlieu was mortgaged for every penny it was worth, she found out that there was a bill of sale on the furniture, that money had been raised on the pictures; and, at last, that her mother’s money, left in her father’s trust to her and George, had been spent. And still Fred Allerton lived with prodigal magnificence.
It was only very gradually that Lucy discovered these things. There was no one whom she could consult, and she had to devise some mode of conduct by herself. It was all a matter of supposition, and she knew almost nothing for certain. She made up her mind that she would probe no deeper. But since such knowledge as she had came to her only by degrees, she was able the better to adapt her behaviour to it. The pride which for so long had been a characteristic of the Allertons, but had unaccountably missed Fred, in her enjoyed all its force; and what she knew now served only to augment it. In the ruin of her ideals she had nothing but that to cling to, and she cherished it with an unreasoning passion. She had a cult for the ancestors whose portraits looked down upon her in one room after another of Hamlyn’s Purlieu, and from their names and the look of them, which was all that remained, she made them in her fancy into personalities whose influence might somehow counteract the weakness of her father. In them there was so much uprightness, strength, and simple goodness; the sum total of it must prevail in the long run against the unruly instincts of one man. And she loved her old home, with all its exquisite contents, with its rich gardens, its broad, fertile fields, above all with its wild heath and flat sea-marshes, she loved it with a hungry devotion, saddened and yet more vehement because her hold on it was jeopardised. She set the whole strength of her will on preserving the place for her brother. Her greatest desire was to fill him with the determination to reclaim it from the foreign hands that had some hold upon it, and to restore it to its ancient freedom.
Upon George were set all Lucy’s hopes. He could restore the fallen fortunes of their race, and her part must be to train him to the glorious task. He was growing up, and she made up her mind to keep from him all knowledge of her father’s weakness. To George he must seem to the last an honest gentleman.
Lucy transferred to her brother all the love which she had lavished on her father. She watched his growth fondly, interesting herself in his affairs, and seeking to be to him not only a sister, but the mother he had lost and the father who was unworthy. When he was of a fit age she saw that he was sent to Winchester. She followed his career with passion and entered eagerly into all his interests.
But if Lucy had lost her old love for her father, its place had been taken by a pitying tenderness; and she did all she could to conceal from him the change in her feelings. It was easy when she was with him, for then it was impossible to resist his charm; and it was only afterwards, when he was no longer there to explain things away, that she could not crush the horror and resentment with which she regarded him. But of this no one knew anything; and she set herself deliberately not only to make such headway as she could in the tangle of their circumstances, but to conceal from everyone the actual state of things.
For presently Fred Allerton seemed no longer to have an inexhaustible supply of ready money, and Lucy had to resort to a very careful economy. She reduced expenses in every way she could, and when left alone in the house, lived with the utmost frugality. She hated to ask her father for money, and since often he did not pay the allowance that was due to her, she was obliged to exercise a good deal of self-denial. As soon as she was old enough, Lucy had taken the household affairs into her own hands and had learned to conduct them in such a way as to hide from the world how difficult it was to make both ends meet. Now, feeling that things were approaching a crisis, she sold the horses and dismissed most of the servants. A great fear seized her that it would be impossible to keep Hamlyn’s Purlieu, and she was stricken with panic. She was willing to make every sacrifice but that, and if she were only allowed to remain there, did not care how penuriously she lived.
But the struggle was growing harder. None knew what she had endured in her endeavour to keep their heads above water. And she had borne everything with perfect cheerfulness. Though she saw a good deal of the neighbouring gentry, connected with her by blood or long friendship, not one of them divined her great anxiety. She felt vaguely that they knew how things were going, but she held her head high and gave no one an opportunity to pity her. Her father was now absent from home more frequently and seemed to avoid being alone with her. They had never discussed the state of their affairs, for he assumed with Lucy a determined flippancy which prevented any serious conversation. On her twenty-first birthday he had made some facetious observation about the money of which she was now mistress, but had treated the matter with such an airy charm that she had felt unable to proceed with it. Nor did she wish to, for if he had spent her money nothing could be done, and it was better not to know for certain. Notwithstanding settlements and wills, she felt that it was really his to do what he liked with, and she made up her mind that nothing in her behaviour should be construed as a reproach.
At length the crash came.
She received a telegram one day—she was nearly twenty-three then—from Richard Lomas, an old friend of her mother’s, to say that he was coming down for luncheon. She walked to the station to meet him. She was very fond of him, not only for his own sake, but because her mother had been fond of him, too; and the affection which had existed between them, drew her nearer to the mother whom she felt now she had a little neglected. Dick Lomas was a barrister, who, after contesting two seats unsuccessfully, had got into Parliament at the last general election and had made already a certain name for himself by the wittiness of his speeches and the bluntness of his common sense. He had neither the portentous gravity nor the dogmatic airs which afflicted most of his legal colleagues in the house. He was a man who had solved the difficulty of being sensible without tediousness and pointed without impertinence. He was wise enough not to speak too often, and if only he had not possessed a sense of humour—which his countrymen always regard with suspicion in an English politician—he might have looked forward to a brilliant future. He was a wiry little man, with a sharp, good-humoured face and sparkling eyes. He carried his seven and thirty years with gaiety.
But on this occasion he was unusually grave. Lucy, already surprised at his sudden visit, divined at once from the uneasiness of his pleasant, grey eyes that something was amiss. Her heart began to beat more quickly. He forced himself to smile as he took her hand, congratulating her on the healthiness of her appearance; and they walked slowly from the station. Dick spoke of indifferent things, while Lucy distractedly turned over in her mind all that could have happened. Luncheon was ready for them, and Dick sat down with apparent gusto, praising emphatically the good things she set before him; but he ate as little as she did. He seemed impatient for the meal to end, but unwilling to enter upon the subject which oppressed him. They drank their coffee.
‘Shall we go for a turn in the garden?’ he suggested.
After his last visit, Dick had sent down an old sundial which he had picked up in a shop in Westminster, and Lucy took him to the place which they had before decided needed just such an ornament. They discussed it at some length, but then silence fell suddenly upon them, and they walked side by side without a word. Dick slipped his arm through hers with a caressing motion, and Lucy, unused to any tenderness, felt a sob rise to her throat. They went in once more and stood in the drawing-room. From the walls looked down the treasures of the house. There was a portrait by Reynolds, and another by Hoppner, and there was a beautiful picture of the Grand Canal by Guardi, and there was a portrait by Goya of a General Allerton who had fought in the Peninsular War. Dick gave them a glance, and his blood tingled with admiration. He leaned against the fireplace.
‘Your father asked me to come down and see you, Lucy. He was too worried to come himself.’
Lucy looked at him with grave eyes, but made no reply.
‘He’s had some very bad luck lately. Your father is a man who prides himself on his business ability, but he has no more knowledge of such matters than a child. He’s an imaginative man, and when some scheme appeals to his feeling for romance, he loses all sense of proportion.’
Dick paused again. It was impossible to soften the blow, and he could only put it bluntly.
‘He’s been gambling on the Stock Exchange, and he’s been badly let down. He was bulling a number of South American railways, and there’s been a panic in the market. He’s lost enormously. I don’t know if any settlement can be made with his creditors, but if not he must go bankrupt. In any case, I’m afraid Hamlyn’s Purlieu must be sold.’
Lucy walked to the window and looked out. But she could see nothing. Her eyes were blurred with tears. She breathed quickly, trying to control herself.
‘I’ve been expecting it for a long time,’ she said at last. ‘I’ve refused to face it, and I put the thought away from me, but I knew really that it must come to that.’
‘I’m very sorry,’ said Dick helplessly.
She turned on him fiercely, and the colour rose to her cheeks. But she restrained herself and left unsaid the bitter words that had come to her tongue. She made a pitiful gesture of despair. He felt how poor were his words of consolation, and how inadequate to her great grief, and he was silent.
‘And what about George?’ she asked.
George was then eighteen, and on the point of leaving Winchester. It had been arranged that he should go to Oxford at the beginning of the next term.
‘Lady Kelsey has offered to pay his expenses at the ‘Varsity,’ answered Dick, ‘and she wants you to go and stay with her for the present.’
‘Do you mean to say we’re penniless?’ asked Lucy, desperately.
‘I think you cannot depend on your father for much regular assistance.’
Lucy was silent again.
Lady Kelsey was the elder sister of Mrs. Allerton, and some time after that lady’s marriage had accepted a worthy merchant whose father had been in partnership with hers; and he, after a prosperous career crowned by surrendering his seat in Parliament to a defeated cabinet-minister—a patriotic act for which he was rewarded with a knighthood—had died, leaving her well off and childless. She had but one other nephew, Robert Boulger, her brother’s only son, but he was rich with all the inherited wealth of the firm of Boulger & Kelsey; and her affections were placed chiefly upon the children of the man whom she had loved devotedly and who had married her sister.
‘I was hoping you would come up to town with me now,’ said Dick. ‘Lady Kelsey is expecting you, and I cannot bear to think of you by yourself here.’
‘I shall stay till the last moment.’
Dick hesitated again. He had wished to keep back the full brutality of the blow, but sooner or later it must be given.
‘The place is already sold. Your father accepted an offer from Jarrett—you remember him, he has been down here; he is your father’s broker and chief creditor—and everything else is to go to Christy’s at once.’
‘Then there is no more to be said.’
She gave Dick her hand.
‘You won’t mind if I don’t come to the station with you?’
‘Won’t you come up to London?’ he asked again.
She shook her head.
‘I want to be alone. Forgive me if I make you go so abruptly.’
‘My dear girl, it’s very good of you to make sure that I don’t miss my train,’ he smiled drily.
‘Good-bye and thank you.’
While Lucy wandered by the seashore, occupied with painful memories, her old friend Dick, too lazy to walk with her, sat in the drawing-room of Court Leys, talking to his hostess.
Mrs. Crowley was an American woman, who had married an Englishman, and on being left a widow, had continued to live in England. She was a person who thoroughly enjoyed life; and indeed there was every reason that she should do so, since she was young, pretty, and rich; she had a quick mind and an alert tongue. She was of diminutive size, so small that Dick Lomas, by no means a tall man, felt quite large by the side of her. Her figure was exquisite, and she had the smallest hands in the world. Her features were so good, regular and well-formed, her complexion so perfect, her agile grace so enchanting, that she did not seem a real person at all. She was too delicate for the hurly-burly of life, and it seemed improbable that she could be made of the ordinary clay from which human beings are manufactured. She had the artificial grace of those dainty, exquisite ladies in the Embarquement pour Cithère of the charming Watteau; and you felt that she was fit to saunter on that sunny strand, habited in satin of delicate colours, with a witty, decadent cavalier by her side. It was preposterous to talk to her of serious things, and nothing but an airy badinage seemed possible in her company.
Mrs. Crowley had asked Lucy and Dick Lomas to stay with her in the house she had just taken for a term of years. She had spent a week by herself to arrange things to her liking, and insisted that Dick should admire all she had done. After a walk round the park he vowed that he was exhausted and must rest till tea-time.
‘Now tell me what made you take it. It’s so far from anywhere.’
‘I met the owner in Rome last winter. It belongs to a Mrs. Craddock, and when I told her I was looking out for a house, she suggested that I should come and see this.’
‘Why doesn’t she live in it herself?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. It appears that she was passionately devoted to her husband, and he broke his neck in the hunting-field, so she couldn’t bear to live here any more.’
Mrs. Crowley looked round the drawing-room with satisfaction. At first it had borne the cheerless look of a house uninhabited, but she had quickly made it pleasant with flowers, photographs, and silver ornaments. The Sheraton furniture and the chintzes suited the style of her beauty. She felt that she looked in place in that comfortable room, and was conscious that her frock fitted her and the circumstances perfectly. Dick’s eye wandered to the books that were scattered here and there.
‘And have you put out these portentous works in order to improve your mind, or with the laudable desire of impressing me with the serious turn of your intellect?’
‘You don’t think I’m such a perfect fool as to try and impress an entirely flippant person like yourself?’
On the table at his elbow were a copy of the Revue des Deux Mondes and one of the Fortnightly Review. He took up two books, and saw that one was the Fröhliche Wissenschaft of Nietzsche, who was then beginning to be read in England by the fashionable world and was on the eve of being discovered by men of letters, while the other was a volume of Mrs. Crowley’s compatriot, William James.
‘American women amaze me,’ said Dick, as he put them down. ‘They buy their linen at Doucet’s and read Herbert Spencer with avidity. And what’s more, they seem to like him. An Englishwoman can seldom read a serious book without feeling a prig, and as soon as she feels a prig she leaves off her corsets.’
‘I feel vaguely that you’re paying me a compliment,’ returned Mrs. Crowley, ‘but it’s so elusive that I can’t quite catch it.’
‘The best compliments are those that flutter about your head like butterflies around a flower.’
‘I much prefer to fix them down on a board with a pin through their insides and a narrow strip of paper to hold down each wing.’
It was October, but the autumn, late that year, had scarcely coloured the leaves, and the day was warm. Mrs. Crowley, however, was a chilly being, and a fire burned in the grate. She put another log on it and watched the merry crackle of the flames.
‘It was very good of you to ask Lucy down here,’ said Dick, suddenly.
‘I don’t know why. I like her so much. And I felt sure she would fit the place. She looks a little like a Gainsborough portrait, doesn’t she? And I like to see her in this Georgian house.’
‘She’s not had much of a time since they sold the family place. It was a great grief to her.’
‘I feel such a pig to have here the things I bought at the sale.’
When the contents of Hamlyn’s Purlieu were sent to Christy’s, Mrs. Crowley, recently widowed and without a home, had bought one or two pictures and some old chairs. She had brought these down to Court Leys, and was much tormented at the thought of causing Lucy a new grief.
‘Perhaps she didn’t recognise them,’ said Dick.
‘Don’t be so idiotic. Of course she recognised them. I saw her eyes fall on the Reynolds the very moment she came into the room.’
‘I’m sure she would rather you had them than any stranger.’
‘She’s said nothing about them. You know, I’m very fond of her, and I admire her extremely, but she would be easier to get on with if she were less reserved. I never shall get into this English way of bottling up my feelings and sitting on them.’
‘It sounds a less comfortable way of reposing oneself than sitting in an armchair.’
‘I would offer to give Lucy back all the things I bought, only I’m sure she’d snub me.’
‘She doesn’t mean to be unkind, but she’s had a very hard life, and it’s had its effect on her character. I don’t think anyone knows what she’s gone through during these ten years. She’s borne the responsibilities of her whole family since she was fifteen, and if the crash didn’t come sooner, it was owing to her. She’s never been a girl, poor thing; she was a child, and then suddenly she was a woman.’
‘But has she never had any lovers?’
‘I fancy that she’s rather a difficult person to make love to. It would be a bold young man who whispered sweet nothings into her ear; they’d sound so very foolish.’
‘At all events there’s Bobbie Boulger. I’m sure he’s asked her to marry him scores of times.’
Sir Robert Boulger had succeeded his father, the manufacturer, as second baronet; and had promptly placed his wealth and his personal advantages at Lucy’s feet. His devotion to her was well known to his friends. They had all listened to the protestations of undying passion, which Lucy, with gentle humour, put smilingly aside. Lady Kelsey, his aunt and Lucy’s, had done all she could to bring the pair together; and it was evident that from every point of view a marriage between them was desirable. He was not unattractive in appearance, his fortune was considerable, and his manners were good. He was a good-natured, pleasant fellow, with no great strength of character perhaps, but Lucy had enough of that for two; and with her to steady him, he had enough brains to make some figure in the world.
‘I’ve never seen Mr. Allerton,’ remarked Mrs. Crowley, presently. ‘He must be a horrid man.’
‘On the contrary, he’s the most charming creature I ever met, and I don’t believe there’s a man in London who can borrow a hundred pounds of you with a greater air of doing you a service. If you met him you’d fall in love with him before you’d got well into your favourite conversation on bimetallism.’
‘I’ve never discussed bimetallism in my life,’ protested Mrs. Crowley.
‘All women do.’
‘Fall in love with him. He knows exactly what to talk to them about, and he has the most persuasive voice you ever heard. I believe Lady Kelsey has been in love with him for five and twenty years. It’s lucky they’ve not yet passed the deceased wife’s sister’s bill, or he would have married her and run through her money as he did his first wife’s. He’s still very good-looking, and there’s such a transparent honesty about him that I promise you he’s irresistible.’
‘And what has happened to him since the catastrophe?’
‘Well, the position of an undischarged bankrupt is never particularly easy, though I’ve known men who’ve cavorted about in motors and given dinners at the Carlton when they were in that state, and seemed perfectly at peace with the world in general. But with Fred Allerton the proceedings before the Official Receiver seem to have broken down the last remnants of his self-respect. He was glad to get rid of his children, and Lady Kelsey was only too happy to provide for them. Heaven only knows how he’s lived during the last two years. He’s still occupied with a variety of crack-brained schemes, and he’s been to me more than once for money to finance them with.’
‘I hope you weren’t such a fool as to give it.’
‘I wasn’t. I flatter myself that I combined frankness with good-nature in the right proportion, and in the end he was always satisfied with the nimble fiver. But I’m afraid things are going harder with him. He has lost his old alert gaiety, and he’s a little down at heel in character as well as in person. There’s a furtive look about him, as though he were ready for undertakings that were not quite above board, and there’s a shiftiness in his eye which makes his company a little disagreeable.’
‘You don’t think he’d do anything dishonest?’ asked Mrs. Crowley quickly.
‘Oh, no. I don’t believe he has the nerve to sail closer to the wind than the law allows, and really, at bottom, notwithstanding all I know of him, I think he’s an honest man. It’s only behind his back that I have any doubts about him; when he’s there face to face with me I succumb to his charm. I can believe nothing to his discredit.’
At that moment they saw Lucy walking towards them. Dick Lomas got up and stood at the window. Mrs. Crowley, motionless, watched her from her chair. They were both silent. A smile of sympathy played on Mrs. Crowley’s lips, and her heart went out to the girl who had undergone so much. A vague memory came back to her, and for a moment she was puzzled; but then she hit upon the idea that had hovered about her mind, and she remembered distinctly the admirable picture by John Furse at Millbank, which is called Diana of the Uplands. It had pleased her always, not only because of its beauty and the fine power of the painter, but because it seemed to her as it were a synthesis of the English spirit. Her nationality gave her an interest in the observation of this, and her wide, systematic reading the power to compare and analyse. This portrait of a young woman holding two hounds in leash, the wind of the northern moor on which she stands, blowing her skirts and outlining her lithe figure, seemed to Mrs. Crowley admirably to follow in the tradition of the eighteenth century. And as Reynolds and Gainsborough, with their elegant ladies in powdered hair and high-waisted gowns, standing in leafy, woodland scenes, had given a picture of England in the age of Reason, well-bred and beautiful, artificial and a little airless, so had Furse in this represented the England of to-day. It was an England that valued cleanliness above all things, of the body and of the spirit, an England that loved the open air and feared not the wildness of nature nor the violence of the elements. And Mrs. Crowley had lived long enough in the land of her fathers to know that this was a true England, simple and honest; narrow perhaps, and prejudiced, but strong, brave, and of great ideals. The girl who stood on that upland, looking so candidly out of her blue eyes, was a true descendant of the ladies that Sir Joshua painted, but she had a bath every morning, loved her dogs, and wore a short, serviceable skirt. With an inward smile, Mrs. Crowley acknowledged that she was probably bored by Emerson and ignorant of English literature; but for the moment she was willing to pardon these failings in her admiration for the character and all it typified.
Lucy came in, and Mrs. Crowley gave her a nod of welcome. She was fond of her fantasies and would not easily interrupt them. She noted that Lucy had just that frank look of Diana of the Uplands, and the delicate, sensitive face, refined with the good-breeding of centuries, but strengthened by an athletic life. Her skin was very clear. It had gained a peculiar freshness by exposure to all manner of weather. Her bright, fair hair was a little disarranged after her walk, and she went to the glass to set it right. Mrs. Crowley observed with delight the straightness of her nose and the delicate curve of her lips. She was tall and strong, but her figure was very slight; and there was a charming litheness about her which suggested the good horse-woman.
But what struck Mrs. Crowley most was that only the keenest observer could have told that she had endured more than other women of her age. A stranger would have delighted in her frank smile and the kindly sympathy of her eyes; and it was only if you knew the troubles she had suffered that you saw how much more womanly she was than girlish. There was a self-possession about her which came from the responsibilities she had borne so long, and an unusual reserve, unconsciously masked by a great charm of manner, which only intimate friends discerned, but which even to them was impenetrable. Mrs. Crowley, with her American impulsiveness, had tried in all kindliness to get through the barrier, but she had never succeeded. All Lucy’s struggles, her heart-burnings and griefs, her sudden despairs and eager hopes, her tempestuous angers, took place in the bottom of her heart. She would have been as dismayed at the thought of others seeing them as she would have been at the thought of being discovered unclothed. Shyness and pride combined to make her hide her innermost feelings so that no one should venture to offer sympathy or commiseration.
‘Do ring the bell for tea,’ said Mrs. Crowley to Lucy, as she turned away from the glass. ‘I can’t get Mr. Lomas to amuse me till he’s had some stimulating refreshment.’
‘I hope you like the tea I sent you,’ said Dick.
‘Very much. Though I’m inclined to look upon it as a slight that you should send me down only just enough to last over your visit.’
‘I always herald my arrival in a country house by a little present of tea,’ said Dick. ‘The fact is it’s the only good tea in the world. I sent my father to China for seven years to find it, and I’m sure you will agree that my father has not lived an ill-spent life.’
The tea was brought and duly drunk. Mrs. Crowley asked Lucy how her brother was. He had been at Oxford for the last two years.
‘I had a letter from him yesterday,’ the girl answered. ‘I think he’s getting on very well. I hope he’ll take his degree next year.’
A happy brightness came into her eyes as she talked of him. She apologised, blushing, for her eagerness.
‘You know, I’ve looked after George ever since he was ten, and I feel like a mother to him. It’s only with the greatest difficulty I can prevent myself from telling you how he got through the measles, and how well he bore vaccination.’
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