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Deadham Hard, Book II.

The Hard Scholl of Things As They Are by Lucas Malet

 

CHAPTER I. IN MAIDEN MEDITATION

It was afternoon, about five o'clock. The fine September weather, hot and cloudless, lasted still. The air was heavy with garden scents, the aromatic sweetness of sun-baked gorse and pine-scrub on the warren, and with the reek off the mud-flats of the Haven, the tide being low. Upon the sandy skirts of the Bar, across the river just opposite, three cormorants—glossy black against the yellow—postured in extravagant angular attitudes drying their wings. Above the rim of the silver-blue sea—patched with purple stains in the middle distance—webs of steamer smoke lay along the southern sky. Occasionally a sound of voices, the creak of a wooden windlass and grind of a boat's keel upon the pebbles as it was wound slowly up the foreshore, came from the direction of the ferry and of Faircloth's Inn. The effect was languorous, would have been enervating to the point of mental, as well as physical, inertia had not the posturing cormorants introduced a note of absurdity and the tainted breath of the mud-flats a wholesome reminder of original sin.

Under these conditions, at once charming and insidious, Damaris Verity, resting in a wicker deck-chair in the shade of the great ilex trees, found herself alone, free to follow her own vagrant thoughts, perceptions, imaginations without human let or hindrance. Free to dream undisturbed and interrogate both Nature and her own much wondering soul.

For Sir Charles was away, staying with an old friend and former brother-in-arms, Colonel Carteret, for a week's partridge shooting over the Norfolk stubble-fields. Sport promised to be good, and Damaris had great faith in Colonel Carteret. With him her father was always amused, contented, safe. Hordle was in attendance, too, so she knew his comfort in small material matters to be secure. She could think of him without any shadow of anxiety, her mind for once at rest. And this she enjoyed. For it is possible to miss a person badly, long for their return ardently, yet feel by no means averse to a holiday from more active expenditure of love on their account.

And Theresa Bilson—pleasing thought!—was, for the moment, absent also, having gone to tea with the Miss Minetts. Two maiden ladies, these, of uncertain age, modest fortune and unimpeachable refinement, once like Theresa herself, members of the scholastic profession; but now, thanks to the timely death of a relative—with consequent annuities and life interest in a ten-roomed, stone-built house of rather mournful aspect in Deadham village—able to rest from their ineffectual labours, support the Church, patronize their poorer and adulate their richer neighbours to their guileless hearts' content.

Gentility exuded from the Miss Minetts, and—if it is permissible slightly to labour the simile—their pores were permanently open. Owing both to her antecedent and existing situation, it may be added, Theresa Bilson was precious in their sight. For had she not in the past, like themselves, sounded the many mortifications of a governess' lot; and was she not now called up higher, promoted indeed to familiar, almost hourly, intercourse with the great? Miss Felicia Verity was known to treat her with affection. Mrs. Augustus Cowden, that true blue of county dames and local aristocrats, openly approved her. She sat daily at Sir Charles Verity's table and helped to order his household. What more genuine patents of gentility could be asked? So they listened with a pleasure, deep almost to agitation, to her performances upon the piano, her reminiscences of Bonn and the Rhine Provinces, and, above all, to her anecdotes of life at The Hard and of its distinguished owner's habits and speech. Thus, by operation of the fundamental irony resident in things, did Theresa Bilson, of all improbable and inadequate little people, become to the Miss Minetts as a messenger of the gods; exciting in them not only dim fluttering apprehensions of the glories of art and delights of foreign travel, but—though in their determined gentility they knew it not—of the primitive allurements and mysteries of sex.

The moral effect of this friendship upon Theresa herself was not, however, of the happiest. Fired by their interest in her recitals she was tempted to spread herself. At first almost unconsciously, for by instinct she was truthful, she embroidered fact, magnifying her office not only in respect of her ex-pupil Damaris but of Damaris' father also. She represented herself as indispensable to both parent and child, until she more than half believed that flattering fiction. She began to reckon herself an essential element in the establishment at The Hard, the pivot indeed upon which it turned. Whereupon a rather morbid craving for the Miss Minetts' society developed in her. For, with those two credulous ladies as audience, she could fortify herself in delusion by recounting all manner of episodes and incidents not as they actually had, but as she so ardently desired they might have, taken place.—A pathetic form of lying this, though far from uncommon to feminine and—more especially—spinster practice and habit!

Still Theresa was not so besotted but that lucid intervals now and again afflicted her. One seized her this afternoon, as she prepared to bid Damaris good-bye. Either conscience pricked with unusual sharpness, or the young girl's smiling and unruffled acquiescence in her departure aroused latent alarms. She began to excuse her action in leaving her charge thus solitary, to protest her devotion; becoming, it may be added, red and agitated in the process. Her thick, short little fingers worked nervously on the crook handle of her white cotton umbrella. Her round light-coloured eyes grew humid to the point of fogging the lenses of her gold-rimmed glasses.

“But why should you worry so now, just as you are starting, Billy?” Damaris reasoned, with the rather cruel logic of cool eighteen in face of hot and flustered nine-and-thirty. “Only at luncheon you were telling me how much you always enjoy spending an afternoon at the Grey House. I thought you looked forward so much to going. What has happened to turn you all different, like this, at the last minute?”

“Nothing has happened exactly; but I have scruples about visiting my own friends and letting you remain alone when Sir Charles is from home. It might appear a dereliction of duty—as though I took advantage of his absence.”

“Nobody would think anything so foolish,” Damaris declared. “And then you knew he would be away this week when you made the engagement.”

Theresa gulped and prevaricated.

“No, surely not—I must have mistaken the date.”

“But you were quite happy at luncheon, and you couldn't have mistaken the date then,” Damaris persisted.

Whereupon poor Theresa lost herself, the worthy and unworthy elements in her nature alike conspiring to her undoing. In her distraction she sniffed audibly. A tear ran down either side of her pink shiny nose and dropped on the folds of shepherd's-plaid silk veiling her plump bosom. For, with some obscure purpose of living up to her self-imposed indispensability, Miss Bilson was distinctly dressy at this period, wearing her best summer gown on every possible occasion and tucking a bunch of roses or carnations archly in her waist-belt.

“Do you think it kind to insist so much on my passing forgetfulness?” she quavered. “The habit of criticizing and cavilling at whatever I say grows on you, Damaris, and it so increases the difficulties of my position. I know I am sensitive, but that is the result of my affection for you. I care so deeply, and you are not responsive. You chill me. As I have told dear Miss Felicia—for I must sometimes unburden myself”—

This hastily, as Damaris' eyes darkened with displeasure.

—“For the last year, ever since you have nominally been out of the schoolroom, I have seen my influence over you lessen, and especially since poor Mrs. Watson's death”—

“We will not talk about Nannie, please,” Damaris said quietly.

“Yes, but—as I told your Aunt Felicia—since then I have tried more than ever to win your entire confidence, to make up to you for the loss of poor Watson and fill her place with you.”

“No one else can ever fill the place of the person one has loved,” Damaris returned indignantly. “It isn't possible. I should be ashamed to let it be possible. Nannie was Nannie—she had cared for me all my life and I had cared for her. She belongs to things about which you”—

And there the girl checked herself, aware of something almost ludicrously pitiful in the smug tearful countenance and stumpy would-be fashionable figure. Hit a man your own size, or bigger, by all means if you are game to take the consequences. But to smite a creature conspicuously your inferior in fortune—past, present, and prospective—is unchivalrous, not to say downright mean-spirited. So Damaris, swiftly repentant, put her arm round the heaving shoulders, bent her handsome young head and kissed the uninvitingly dabby cheek—a caress surely counting to her for righteousness.

“Don't find fault with me any more, Billy,” she said. “Indeed I never hurt you on purpose. But there are such loads of things to think about, that I get absorbed in them and can't attend sometimes directly on the minute.”

“Absent-mindedness should be corrected rather than encouraged,” Miss Bilson announced, sententious even amid her tears.

“Oh! it amounts to more than absent-mindedness I'm afraid—a sort of absent-every-thingedness when it overtakes me. For the whole of me seems to go away and away, hand in hand and all together,” Damaris said, her eyes alight with questions and with dreams. “But don't let us discuss that now,” she added. “It would waste time, and it is you who must go away and away, Billy, if you are not to put the poor Miss Minetts into a frantic fuss by being late for tea. They will think some accident has happened to you. Don't beep them in suspense, it is simply barbarous.—Good-bye, and don't hurry back. I have heaps to amuse me. I'll not expect you till dinner-time.”

Thus did it come about that Damaris reposed in a deck chair, under the shade of the great ilex trees, gazing idly at the webs of steamer smoke hanging low in the southern sky, at the long yellow-grey ridge of the Bar between river and sea, and at the cormorants posturing in the hot afternoon sunshine upon the sand.

Truly she was free to send forth her soul upon whatever far fantastic journey she pleased. But souls are perverse, not to be driven at will, choosing their own times and seasons for travel. And hers, just now, proved obstinately home-staying—had no wings wherewith to fly, but must needs crawl a-fourfoot, around all manner of inglorious personal matters. For that skirmish with her ex-governess, though she successfully bridled her tongue and conquered by kindness rather than by smiting, had clouded her inward serenity, not only by its inherent uselessness, but by reminding her indirectly of an occurrence which it was her earnest desire to forget.

Indirectly, mention of her beloved nurse, Sarah Watson—who journeying back from a visit to her native Lancashire, just this time last year, had met death swift and hideous in a railway collision—recalled to Damaris the little scene, of a week ago, with Tom Verity when ho had asked her, in the noonday sunshine out on the Bar, for some explanation of his strange nocturnal experience. She went hot all over now, with exaggerated childish shame, thinking of it. For had not she, Damaris Verity, though nurtured in the creed that courage is the source and mother of all virtues, shown the white feather, incontinently turned tail and run away? Remembrance of that running scorched her, so that more than once, awakening suddenly in the night, her fair young body was dyed rose-red with the disgrace of it literally from head to heel. She was bitterly humiliated by her own poltroonery, ingenuously doubtful as to whether she could ever quite recover her self-respect; glad that every day put two hundred miles and more of sea between her and Tom Verity, since he had witnessed that contemptible fall from grace.

Nevertheless, after her first consternation—in which, to avoid further speech with him she had sought refuge among the unsavoury seine nets in the fore-part of Jennifer's ferry-boat—Tom Verity's probable opinion of her undignified action troubled her far less than the cause of the said action itself. For exactly what, after all, had so upset her, begetting imperative necessity of escape? Not the apparent confirmation of that ugly legend concerning ghostly ponies driven up across The Hard garden from the shore. From childhood, owing both to temperament and local influences, her apprehension of things unseen and super-normal had been remarkably acute. From the dawn of conscious intelligence these had formed an integral element in the atmosphere of her life; and that without functional disturbance, moral or physical, of a neurotic sort. She felt no morbid curiosity about such matters, did not care to dwell upon or talk of them.—Few persons do who, being sane in mind and body, are yet endowed with the rather questionable blessing of the Seer's sixth sense.—For while, in never doubting their existence her reason acquiesced, her heart turned away, oppressed and disquieted, as from other mysterious actualities common enough to human observation, such as illness, disease, deformity, old age, the pains of birth and of death. Such matters might perplex and sadden, or arouse her indignant pity; but, being strong with the confidence of untouched youth and innocence, they were powerless, in and by themselves, to terrify her to the contemptible extremity of headlong flight.

This she recognized, though less by reasoning than by instinct; and so found herself compelled to search deeper for the cause of her recent disgrace. Not that she willingly prosecuted that search; but that the subject pursued her, simply refusing to leave her alone. Continually it presented itself to her mind, and always with the same call for escape, the same foreboding of some danger against which she must provide. Always, too, it seemed to hinge upon Tom Verity's visit, and something in her relation to the young man himself which she could not define. She revolved the question now—Theresa being safely packed off to her tea-party—in shade of the ilex trees, with solemn eyes and finely serious face.

There was not anything unusual in receiving visitors at The Hard. Men came often to see her father, and she took her share in entertaining all such comers as a matter of course. Some she “didn't much care about,” some she liked. But, with the exception of Colonel Carteret from childhood her trusted friend and confidant, their coming and going was just part of the accustomed routine, a survival from the life at the Indian summer palace of long ago, and made no difference. Yet, though she was still uncertain whether she did like Tom Verity or not, his coming and going had indisputably made a difference. It marked, indeed, a new departure in her attitude and thought. Her world, before his advent, was other than that in which she now dwelt.

For one thing, Tom was much younger than the majority of her father's guests—a man not made but still early in the making, the glamour of promise rather than the stark light of finality upon him. This affected her; for at eighteen, a career, be it never so distinguished, which has reached its zenith, in other words reached the end of its tether, must needs have a touch of melancholy about it. With the heat of going on in your own veins, the sight of one who has no further go strikes chill to the heart. And so, while uncertain whether she quite trusted him or not, Damaris—until the unlucky running away episode—had taken increasing pleasure in this new cousin's company. It both interested and diverted her. She had not only felt ready to talk to him; but,—surprising inclination!—once the ice of her natural reserve broken, to talk to him about herself.

Half-shyly she dwelt upon his personal appearance.—A fine head and clever face, the nose astute, slightly Jewish in type, so she thought. His eyes were disappointing, too thickly brown in colour, too opaque. They told you nothing, were indeed curiously meaningless; and, though well set under an ample brow, were wanting in depth and softness owing to scantiness of eyelash. But his chin satisfied her demands. It was square, forcible, slightly cleft; and his mouth, below the fly-away reddish moustache, was frankly delightful.—Damaris flushed, smiling to herself now as she recalled his smile. Whereupon the humiliation of that thrice wretched running away took a sharper edge. For she realized, poor child, how much—notwithstanding her proud little snubbing of him—she coveted his good opinion, wished him to admire and to like her; wanted, even while she disapproved his self-complacency and slightly doubted his truthfulness, to have him carry with him a happy impression of her—carry it with him to that enchanted far Eastern land in which all the poetry of her childhood had its root. For, if remembrance of her remained with him, and that agreeably, she herself also found “Passage to India” in a sense. And this idea, recondite though it was, touched and charmed her fancy—or would have done so but for the recollection of her deplorable flight.—Oh! what—what made her run away? From what had she thus run? If she could only find out! And find, moreover, the cause sufficient to palliate, to some extent at least, the woefulness of her cowardice.

But at this point her meditation suffered interruption. The three cormorants, having finished their sun-bath, rose from the sand and flapped off, flying low and sullenly in single file over the sea parallel with the eastward-trending coast-line.

With the departure of the great birds her surroundings seemed to lose their only element of active and conscious life. The brooding sunlit evening became oppressive, so that in the space of a moment Damaris passed from solitude, which is stimulating, to loneliness, which is only sad. Meanwhile the shadow cast by the ilex trees had grown sensibly longer, softer in outline, more transparent and finely intangible in tone, and the reek of the mud-flats more potent, according to its habit at sundown and low tide.

It quenched the garden scents with a fetid sweetness, symbolic perhaps of the languorous sheltered character of the scene and of much which had or might yet happen there—the life breath of the genius loci, an at once seductive and, as Tom Verity had rightly divined, a doubtfully wholesome spirit! Over Damaris it exercised an unwilling fascination, as of some haunting refrain ending each verse of her personal experience. Even when, as a little girl of eight, fresh from the gentle restraints and rare religious and social amenities of an aristocratic convent school in Paris, she had first encountered it, it struck her as strangely familiar—a thing given back rather than newly discovered, making her mind and innocent body alike eager with absorbed yet half-shuddering recognition. A good ten years had elapsed since then, but her early impression still persisted, producing in her a certain spiritual and emotional unrest.

And at that, by natural transition, her thought turned from Tom Verity to fix itself upon the one other possible witness of her ignominy—namely, the young master mariner who, coming ashore in Proud, the lobster-catcher's cranky boat, had walked up the shifting shingle to the crown of the ridge and stood watching her, in silence, for a quite measurable period, before passing on his way down to the ferry. For, from her first sight of him, had he not seemed to evoke that same sense of remembrance, to be, like the reek off the mud-flats, already well-known, something given back to her rather than newly discovered? She was still ignorant as to who ho was or where he came from, having been far too engrossed by mortification to pay any attention to the conversation between her cousin and Jennifer during their little voyage down the tide-river, and having disdained to make subsequent enquiries.—She had a rooted dislike to appear curious or ask questions.—But now, reviewing the whole episode, it broke in on her that the necessity for escape and foreboding of danger, which culminated in her flight, actually dated from the advent of this stranger rather than from Tom's request for enlightenment concerning unaccountable noises heard in the small hours.

Damaris slipped her feet down off the leg-rest, and sat upright, tense with the effort to grasp and disentangle the bearings of this revelation. Was her search ended? Had she indeed detected the cause of her discomfiture; or only pushed her enquiry back a step further, thus widening rather than limiting the field of speculation? For what conceivable connection, as she reflected, could the old lobster-catcher's passenger have with any matter even remotely affecting herself!

Then she started, suddenly sensible of a comfortable, though warmly protesting, human voice and presence at her elbow.

“Yes, you may well look astonished, Miss Damaris. I know how late it is, and have been going on like anything to Lizzie over her carelessness. Mrs. Cooper's walked up the village with Laura about some extra meat that's wanted, and when I came through for your tea if that girl hadn't let the kitchen fire right out!—Amusing herself down in the stable-yard, I expect, Mrs. Cooper being gone.—And the business I've had to get a kettle to boil!”

Verging on forty, tall, dark, deep-bosomed and comely, a rich flush on her cheeks under the clear brown skin thanks to a kitchen fire which didn't burn and righteous anger which did, Mary Fisher, the upper housemaid, set a tea-tray upon the garden table beside Damaris' chair.

“That's what comes of taking servants out of trades-peoples' houses,” she went on, as she marshalled silver tea-pot and cream-jug—embossed with flamboyant many-armed Hindu deities—hot cakes, ginger snaps and saffron-sprinkled buns. “You can't put any real dependence on them, doing their work as suits themselves just anyhow and anywhen. Mrs. Cooper and I knew how it would be well enough when Miss Bilson engaged Lizzie Trant and Mr. Hordle said the same. But it wasn't one atom of use for us to speak. The Miss Minetts recommended the girl—so there was the finish of it. And that's at the bottom of your being kept waiting the best part of a hour for your tea like this, Miss.”

Notwithstanding the exactions of a somewhat tyrannous brain and her conviction of high responsibilities, the child, which delights to be petted, told stories and made much of, was strong in Damaris still. This explosion of domestic wrath on her behalf proved eminently soothing. It directed her brooding thought into nice, amusing, everyday little channels; and assured her of protective solicitude, actively on the watch, by which exaggerated shames and alarms were withered and loneliness effectually dispersed. She felt smoothed, contented. Fell, indeed, into something of the humour which climbs on to a friendly lap and thrones it there blissfully careless of the thousand and one ills, known and unknown, which infant flesh is heir to. She engaged the comely comfortable woman to stay and minister further to her.

“Pour out my tea for me, Mary, please,” she said, “if you're not busy. But isn't this your afternoon off, by rights?”

And Mary, while serving her, acknowledged that not only was it “by rights” her “afternoon off;” but that Mr. Patch, the coachman, had volunteered to drive her into Marychurch to see her parents when he exercised the carriage horses. But, while thanking him very kindly, she had refused. Was it likely, she said, she would leave the house with Sir Charles and Mr. Hordle away, and Miss Bilson taking herself off to visit friends, too?

From which Damaris gathered that, in the opinion of the servants' hall, Theresa's offence was rank, it stank to heaven. She therefore, being covetous of continued contentment, turned the conversation to less controversial subjects; and, after passing notice of the fair weather, the brightness of the geraniums and kindred trivialities, successfully incited Mary to talk of Brockhurst, Sir Richard Calmady's famous place in the north of the county, where—prior to his retirement to his native town of Marychurch, upon a generous pension—her father, Lomas Fisher, had for many years occupied the post of second gardener. Here was material for story-telling to the child Damaris' heart's content! For Brockhurst is rich in strange records of wealth, calamity, heroism, and sport, the inherent romance of which Mary's artless narrative was calculated to enhance rather than dissipate.

So young mistress listened and maid recounted, until, the former fortified by cakes and tea, the two sauntered, side by side—a tall stalwart black figure, white capped and aproned and an equally tall but slender pale pink one—down across the lawn to the battery where the small obsolete cannon so boldly defied danger of piracy or invasion by sea.

The sun, a crimson disc, enormous in the earth-mist, sank slowly, south of west, behind the dark mass of Stone Horse Head. The upper branches of the line of Scotch firs in the warren and, beyond them, the upper windows of the cottages and Inn caught the fiery light. Presently a little wind, thin, perceptibly chill, drew up the river with the turning of the tide. It fluttered Mary Fisher's long white muslin apron strings and lifted her cap, so that she raised her hand to keep it in place upon her smooth black hair. The romance of Brockhurst failed upon her tongue. She grew sharply practical.

“The dew's beginning to rise, Miss Damaris,” she said, “and you've only got your house shoes on. You ought to go indoors at once.”

But—“Listen,” Damaris replied, and lingered.

The whistling of a tune, shrill, but true and sweet, and a rattle of loose shingle, while a young man climbed the seaward slope of the Bar. The whistling ceased as he stopped, on the crest of the ridge, and stood, bare-headed, contemplating the sunset. For a few seconds the fiery light stained his hands, his throat, his hair, his handsome bearded face; then swiftly faded, leaving him like a giant leaden image set up against a vast pallor of sea and sky.

Mary Fisher choked down a hasty exclamation.

“Come, do come, Miss Damaris, before the grass gets too wet,” she said almost sharply. “It's going to be a drenching dew to-night.”

“Yes—directly—in a minute—but, Mary, tell me who that is?”

The woman hesitated.

“Out on the Bar, do you mean? No one I am acquainted with, Miss.”

“I did not intend to ask if he was a friend of yours,” Damaris returned, with a touch of grandeur, “but merely whether you could tell me his name.”

“Oh! it's Mrs. Faircloth's son I suppose—the person who keeps the Inn. I heard he'd been home for a few days waiting for a ship”—and she turned resolutely towards the house. “It's quite time that silver was taken indoors and the library windows closed. But you must excuse me, Miss Damaris, I can't have you stay out here in that thin gown in the damp. You really must come with me, Miss.”

And the child in Damaris obeyed. Dutifully it went, though the soul of the eighteen-year-old Damaris was far away, started once more on an anxious quest.

She heard the loose shingle shift and rattle under Faircloth's feet as he swung down the near slope to the jetty. The sound pursued her, and again she was overtaken—overwhelmed by foreboding and desire of flight.

CHAPTER II. WHICH CANTERS ROUND A PARISH PUMP

Not until the second bell was about to cease ringing did Theresa Bilson—fussily consequential—reappear at The Hard.

During the absence of the master of the house she would have much preferred high tea in the schoolroom, combined with a certain laxity as to hours and to dress; but Damaris, in whom the sense of style was innate, stood out for the regulation dignities of late dinner and evening gowns. To-night, however, thanks to her own unpunctuality, Miss Bilson found ample excuse for dispensing with ceremonial garments.

“No—no—we will not wait,” she said, addressing Mary and her attendant satellite, Laura, the under-housemaid, as—agreeably ignorant of the sentiment of a servants' hall which thirsted for her blood—she passed the two standing at attention by the open door of the dining-room. “I am not going to change. I will leave my hat and things down here—Laura can take them to my room later—and have dinner as I am.”

During the course of that meal she explained how she had really quite failed to observe the hour when she left the Grey House. Commander and Mrs. Battye were at tea there; and the vicar—Dr. Horniblow—looked in afterwards. There was quite a little meeting, in fact, to arrange the details of the day after to-morrow's choir treat. A number of upper-class parishioners, she found, were anxious to embrace this opportunity of visiting Harchester, and inspecting the Cathedral and other sights of that historic city, under learned escort. It promised to be a most interesting and instructive expedition, involving moreover but moderate cost.—And every one present—Theresa bridled over her salmon cutlet and oyster sauce—everyone seemed so anxious for her assistance and advice. The vicar deferred to her opinion in a quite pointed manner; and spoke, which was so nice of him, of her known gift of organization. “So we claim not only your sympathy, Miss Bilson, but your active co-operation,” he had said. “We feel The Hard should be officially represented.”

Here the speaker became increasingly self-conscious and blushed.

“What could I do, therefore, but remain even at the risk of being a trifle late for dinner?” she asked. “It would have been so extremely uncivil to the Miss Minetts to break up the gathering by leaving before full agreement as to the arrangements had been reached. I felt I must regard it as a public duty, under the circumstances. I really owed it to my position here, you know, Damaris, to stay to the last.”

It may be observed, in passing, that Miss Bilson was fond of food and made a good deal of noise in eating, particularly when, as on the present occasion, she combined that operation with continuous speech. This may account for Damaris bestowing greater attention on the manner than the matter of her ex-governess' communications. She was sensible that the latter showed to small advantage being rather foolishly excited and elate, and felt vexed the maids should hear and see her behaving thus. It could hardly fail to lower her in their estimation.

As to the impending parochial invasion of Harchester—during the earlier stages of dinner Damaris hardly gave it a second thought, being still under the empire of impressions very far removed from anything in the nature of choir treats. She still beheld the fiery glare of an expiring sunset, and against the ensuing pallor of sea and sky a leaden-hued human, figure strangely, almost portentously evident. That it appeared noble in pose and in outline, even beautiful, she could not deny. But that somehow it frightened her, she could equally little deny. So it came about that once again, as Mary and her satellite Laura silently waited at table, and as Theresa very audibly gobbled food in and words out, Damaris shrank within herself seeming to hear a shrill sweet whistling and the shatter of loose pebbles and shifting shingle under Faircloth's pursuing feet.

The young man's name aroused her interest, not to say her curiosity, the more deeply because of its association, with a locality exploration of which had always been denied her—a Naboth's vineyard of the imagination, near at hand, daily in sight, yet personal acquaintance with which she failed to possess even yet. The idea of an island, especially a quite little island, a miniature and separate world, shut off all by itself, is dreadfully enticing to the infant mind—at once a geographical entity and a cunning sort of toy. And Faircloth's Inn, with the tarred wooden houses adjacent, was situated upon what, to all intents and purposes, might pass as an island since accessible only by boat or by an ancient paved causeway daily submerged at high tide.

Skirting the further edge of the warren, a wide rutted side lane leads down to the landward end of the said causeway from the village green, just opposite Deadham post office and Mrs. Doubleday's general shop.—A neglected somewhat desolate strip of road this, between broken earthbanks topped by ragged firs, yet very paintable and dear to the sketch-book of the amateur. In summer overgrown with grass and rushes, bordered by cow-parsley, meadowsweet, pink codlings-and-cream, and purple flowered peppermint, in winter a marsh of sodden brown and vivid green; but at all seasons a telling perspective, closed by the lonely black and grey island hamlet set in the gleaming tide.

Small wonder the place stirred Damaris' spirit of enquiry and adventure! She wanted to go there, to examine, to learn how people lived cut off from the mainland for hours twice every day and night. But her early attempts at investigation met with prompt discouragement from both her nurse and her aunt, Felicia Verity. And Damaris was not of the disposition which plots, wheedles, and teases to obtain what it wants; still less screams for the desired object until for very weariness resistance yields. Either she submitted without murmuring or fearlessly defied authority. In the present case she relinquished hope and purpose obediently, while inwardly longing for exploration, of her “darling little island” all the more.

But authority was not perhaps altogether unjustified of its decision, for the inhabitants of the spot so engaging to Damaris' imagination were a close corporation, a race of sailors and fishermen and, so said rumour, somewhat rough customers at that. They lived according to their own traditions and unwritten laws, entertained a lordly contempt for wage-earning labourers and landsmen, and, save when money was likely to pass, were grudging of hospitality even to persons of quality setting foot within their coasts.

To their reprehensible tendencies in this last respect the Miss Minetts could bear painful witness, as—with hushed voices and entreaties the sorry tale might “go no further”—they more than once confided to Theresa Bilson. For one Saturday afternoon—unknown to the vicar—being zealous in the admonishing of recalcitrant church-goers and rounding up of possible Sunday-school recruits, they crossed to the island at low tide; and in their best district visitor manner—too often a sparkling blend of condescension and familiarity, warranted to irritate—severally demanded entrance to the first two of the black cottages.—The Inn they avoided. Refined gentlewomen can hardly be expected, even in the interests of religion, to risk pollution by visiting a common tavern, more particularly when a company of half-grown lads and blue jerseyed men—who may, of course, have been carousing within—hangs about its morally malodorous door.

Of precisely what followed their attempted violation of the privacy of those two cottages, even the Miss Minetts themselves could subsequently give no very coherent account. They only knew that some half-hour later, with petticoats raised to a height gravely imperilling decency, they splashed landward across the causeway—now ankle-deep in water—while the lads congregated before the Inn laughed boisterously, the men turned away with a guffaw, dogs of disgracefully mixed parentage yelped, and the elder female members of the Proud and Sclanders families flung phrases lamentably subversive of gentility after their retreating figures from the foreshore.

Modesty and mortification alike forbade the outraged ladies reporting the episode to Dr. Horniblow in extenso. But they succeeded in giving Miss Bilson a sufficiently lurid account of it to make “the darling little island,” in as far as her charge, Damaris, was concerned, more than ever taboo. Their request that the story might “go no further” she interpreted with the elasticity usually accorded to such requests; and proceeded, at the first opportunity, to retail the whole shocking occurrence to her pupil as an example of the ingratitude and insubordination of the common people. For Theresa was nothing if not conservative and aristocratic. From such august anachronisms as the divine right of kings and the Stuart succession, down to humble bobbing of curtseys and pulling of forelocks in to-day's village street, she held a permanent brief for the classes as against the masses. Unluckily the Miss Minetts' hasty and watery withdrawal, with upgathered skirts, across the causeway had appealed to Damaris' sense of comedy rather than of tragedy.—She didn't want to be unkind, but you shouldn't interfere; and if you insisted on interfering you must accept whatever followed. The two ladies in question were richly addicted to interfering she had reason to think.—And then they must have looked so wonderfully funny scuttling thus!

The picture remained by her as a thing of permanent mirth. So it was hardly surprising, in face of the dominant direction of her thoughts to-night, that, when the Miss Minetts' name punctuated Theresa's discourse recurrent as a cuckoo-cry, remembrance of their merrily inglorious retirement from the region of Faircloth's Inn should present itself. Whereupon Damaris' serious mood was lightened as by sudden sunshine, and she laughed.

Hearing which infectiously gay but quite unexpected sound, Miss Bilson stopped dead in the middle both of a nectarine and a sentence.

“What is the matter, Damaris?” she exclaimed. “I was explaining our difficulty in securing sufficient conveyances for some of our party to and from Marychurch station. I really do not see any cause for amusement in what I said.”

“There wasn't anything amusing, dear Billy, I'm sure there wasn't,” Damaris returned, the corners of her mouth still quivering and her eyes very bright. “I beg your pardon. I'm afraid I wasn't quite attending. I was thinking of something else. You were speaking about the carriage horses, weren't you? Yes.”

But Theresa turned sulky. She had been posing, planing in mid-air around the fair castles hope and ambition are reported to build there. Her fat little feet were well off the floor, and that outbreak of laughter let her down with a bump. She lost her head, lost her temper and her opportunity along with it, and fell into useless scolding.

“You are extremely inconsequent and childish sometimes, Damaris,” she said. “I find it most trying when I attempt to talk to you upon practical subjects, really pressing subjects, and you either cannot or will not concentrate. What can you expect in the future when you are thrown more on your own resources, and have not me—for instance—always to depend upon, if you moon through life like this? It must lead to great discomfort not only for yourself but for others. Pray be warned in time.”

Damaris turned in her chair at the head of the table. A station not unconnected, in Theresa's mind, with the internal ordering of those same air-built castles, and consistently if furtively coveted by her. To Sir Charles's chair at the bottom of the table, she dared not aspire, so during his absence reluctantly retained her accustomed place at the side.

“You need not wait any longer, Mary,” Damaris said, over her shoulder.

“Why?” Theresa began fussily, as the two maids left the room.

“Why?” Damaris took her up. “Because I prefer our being alone during the remainder of this conversation. I understand that you want to ask me about something to do with this excursion to Harchester. What is it, please?”

“My dear Damaris,” the other protested, startled and scenting unexpected danger, “really your manner”—

“And yours.—Both perhaps would bear improvement. But that is by the way. What is it, please, you want?”

“Really you assert yourself”—

“And you forget yourself—before the servants, too, I do not like it at all. You should be more careful.”

“Damaris,” she cried aghast, confounded to the verge of tears—“Damaris!”

“Yes—I am giving you my full attention. Pray let us be practical,” the young girl said, sitting up tall and straight in the shaded lamp-light, the white dinner-table spread with gleaming glass and silver, fine china, fruit and flowers before her, the soft gloom of the long low room behind, all tender hint of childhood banished from her countenance, and her eyes bright now not with laughter but with battle. “Pray let us finish with the subject of the choir treat. Then we shall be free to talk about more interesting things.”

Miss Bilson waved her hands hysterically.

“No—no—I never wish to mention it again. I am too deeply hurt by your behaviour to me, Damaris—your sarcasm.—Of course,” she added, “I see I must withdraw my offer. It will cause the greatest inconvenience and disappointment; but for that I cannot hold myself responsible, though it will be most painful and embarrassing to me after the kind appreciation I have received. Still I must withdraw it”—

“Withdraw what offer?”

“Why the offer I was explaining to you just now, when you ordered the maids out of the room. You really cannot deny that you heard what I said, Damaris, because you mentioned the carriage horses yourself.”

Theresa sipped some water. She was recovering if not her temper, yet her grasp on the main issue. She wanted, so desperately, to achieve her purpose and, incidentally, to continue to play, both for her own benefit and that of the parish, her self-elected role of Lady Bountiful, of “official representative of The Hard”—as Dr. Horniblow by a quite innocent if ill-timed flourish of speech had unfortunately put it.

“The conveyances in the village are insufficient to take the whole party to the station,” she continued. “An extra brake can be had at the Stag's Head in Mary church; but a pair of horses must be sent in to-morrow afternoon to bring it over here. I saw”—she hesitated a moment—“I really could see no objection to Patch taking our horses in to fetch the brake, and driving a contingent to the station in it next morning.”

“And meeting the train at night, I suppose?” Damaris said calmly.

“Of course,” Theresa answered, thus unconsciously declaring herself a rank outsider, and rushing blindly upon her fate.

For what thoroughbred member of the equestrian order does not know that next—and even that not always—to the ladies of his family and, possibly, the key of his cellar, an Englishman's stable is sacrosanct? Dispose of anything he owns rather than his horses. To attempt touching them is, indeed, to stretch out your hand against the Ark of the Covenant and risk prompt withering of that impious limb. Yet poor Theresa blundered on.

“I told the vicar that, Sir Charles being from home, I felt I might make the offer myself, seeing how much it would simplify the arrangements and how very little work Patch has when you and I are alone here. It is a pity there is not time to obtain Sir Charles's sanction. That would be more proper, of course, more satisfactory. But under the circumstances it need not, I think, be regarded as an insuperable objection. I told the Miss Minetts and the vicar”—

Here Miss Bilson blushed, applying fork and spoon, in coy confusion, to the remains of the nectarine upon her plate.

“I told them,” she repeated, “knowing Sir Charles as well as I do, I felt I might safely assure them of that.”

In Damaris, meanwhile, anger gradually gave place to far more complex emotions. She sat well back in her chair, and clasped her hands firmly in her flowered Pompadour-muslin lap. Her eyes looked enormous as she kept them fixed gravely and steadily upon the speaker. For extraordinary ideas and perceptions concerning the said speaker crowded into her young head. She did not like them at all. She shrank from dwelling upon or following them put. They, indeed, made her hot and uncomfortable all over. Had Theresa Bilson taken leave of her senses, or was she, Damaris, herself in fault—a harbourer of nasty thoughts? Consciously she felt to grow older, to grow up. And she did not like that either; for the grown-up world, to which Theresa acted just now as doorkeeper, struck her as an ugly and vulgar-minded place. She saw her ex-governess from a new angle—a more illuminating than agreeable one, at which she no longer figured as pitiful, her little assumptions and sillinesses calling for the chivalrous forbearance of persons more happily placed; but as actively impertinent, an usurper of authority and privileges altogether outside her office and her scope. She was greedy—not a pretty word yet a true one, covering both her manner of eating and her speech. Registering which facts Damaris was sensible of almost physical repulsion, as from something obscurely gross. Hence it followed that Theresa must, somehow, be stopped, made to see her own present unpleasantness, saved from herself in short—to which end it became Damaris' duty to unfurl the flag of revolt.

The young girl arrived at this conclusion in a spirit of rather pathetic seriousness. It is far from easy, at eighteen, to control tongue and temper to the extent of joining battle with your elders in calm and dignified sort. To lay about you in a rage is easy enough. But rage is tiresomely liable to defeat its own object and make you make a fool of yourself. Any unfurling of the flag would be useless, and worse than useless, unless it heralded victory sure and complete—Damaris realized this. So she kept a brave front, although her pulse quickened and she had a bad little empty feeling around her heart.

Fortunately, however, for her side of the campaign, Theresa—emboldened by recapitulation of her late boastings at the Miss Minetts' tea-table—hastened to put a gilded dome to her own indiscretion and offence. For nothing would do but Damaris must accompany her on this choir treat! She declared herself really compelled to press the point. It offered such an excellent opportunity of acquiring archaeological knowledge—had not the Dean most kindly promised to conduct the party round the Cathedral himself and deliver a short lecture en route?—and of friendly social intercourse, both of which would be very advantageous to Damaris. As she was without any engagement for the day clearly neither should be missed. Of course, everyone understood how unsuitable it would be to ask Sir Charles to patronize parish excursions and events.—Here Miss Bilson became lyrical, speaking with gasping breath and glowing face, of “a call to exalted spheres of action, of great Proconsuls, Empire Builders, Pillars of the State.”—Naturally you hesitated to intrude on the time and attention of such a distinguished person—that in point of fact was her main reason for disposing of the matter of the carriage horses herself. How could she trouble Sir Charles with such a homely detail?—But Damaris' case, needless to remark, was very different. At her age it was invidious to be too exclusive. Miss Felicia Verity felt—so she, Theresa, was certain—that it was a pity Damaris did not make more friends in the village now she was out of the schoolroom. May and Doris Horniblow were sweet girls and highly educated. They, of course, were going. And Captain Taylor, she understood would bring his daughter, Louisa—who was home for a few days before the opening of term at the Tillingworth High School where she was second mistress.

“It is always well to realize the attainments of young people of your own age, even if they are not in quite the same social grade as yourself. Your going would give pleasure too. It will be taken as a compliment to the vicar and the Church—may really, in a sense, be called patriotic since an acknowledgment of the duty we owe, individually, to the local community of which we form part. And then,” she added, naively giving herself away at the last, “of course, if you go over to the station in the brake Patch cannot make any difficulties about driving it.”

Here Theresa stayed the torrent of her eloquence and looked up, to find Damaris' eyes fixed upon her in incredulous wonder.

“Have you nothing to say, dear, in answer to my proposition?” she enquired, with a suddenly anxious, edgy little laugh.

“I am afraid I have a lot to say, some of which you won't like.”

“How so?” Theresa cried, still playfully. “You must see how natural and reasonable my suggestion is.” Then becoming admonitory. “You should learn to think a little more of others.—It is a bad habit to offer opposition simply for opposition's sake.”

“I do not oppose you for the mere pleasure of opposing,” Damaris began, determined her voice should not shake. “But I'm sorry to say, I can't agree to the horses being used to draw a loaded brake. I could not ask Patch. He would refuse and be quite right in refusing. It's not their work—nor his work either.”

She leaned forward, trying to speak civilly and gently.

“There are some things you don't quite understand about the stables, or about the servants—the things which can't be done, which it's impossible to ask.—No,—wait, please—please let me finish”—

For between astonishment, chagrin, and an inarticulate struggle to protest, Miss Bilson's complexion was becoming almost apoplectic and her poor fat little cheeks positively convulsed.

“I dislike saying such disagreeable things to you, but it can't be avoided. It would be cowardly of me not to tell you the truth.—You shall have the brougham the day after to-morrow, and I'll write to Miss Minett in the morning, and tell her you will call for her and her sister, on your way to Marychurch, and that you will bring them back at night. I will give Patch his orders myself, so that there may be no confusion. And I will subscribe a pound to the expenses of the choir treat. That is all I can promise in the way of help.”

“But—but—Damaris, think of the position in which you place me! I cannot be thrust aside thus. I will not submit. It is so humiliating, so—so—I offered the horses. I told the vicar he might consider it settled about the extra brake”—

“I know. That was a mistake. You had no right to make such an offer.”

For justice must take its course. Theresa must be saved from herself. Still her implacable young saviour, in proportion as victory appeared assured, began to feel sad. For it grew increasingly plain that Theresa was not of the stuff of which warriors, any more than saints, are made. Stand up to her and she collapsed like a pricked bubble.—So little was left, a scum of colourless soap suds, in which very certainly there is no fight. Again she showed a pitiful being, inviting chivalrous forbearance.

“You are very hard,” she lamented, “and you are always inclined to side with the servants against me. You seem to take pleasure in undermining my influence, while I am so ready and anxious to devote myself to you. You know there is nothing, nothing I would not do for you and—and for Sir Charles.”

Theresa choked, coughed, holding her handkerchief to her eyes.

“And what reward do I meet with?” she asked brokenly. “At every turn I am thwarted. But you must give way in this case, Damaris. Positively you must. I cannot allow myself to be publicly discredited through your self-will. I promised the horses for the extra brake. The offer was made and accepted—accepted, you understand, actually accepted. What will the vicar say if the arrangement is upset? What will every one think?”

Damaris pushed her chair back from the table and rose to her feet.—Forbearance wore threadbare under accusation and complaint. No, Theresa was not only a little too abject, but a little too disingenuous, thereby putting herself beyond the pale of rightful sympathy. Even while she protested devotion, self looked out seeking personal advantage. And that devotion, in itself, shocked Damaris' sense of fitness where it involved her father. It wasn't Theresa's place to talk of devotion towards him!

Moreover the young girl began to feel profoundly impatient of all this to do and bother. For wasn't the whole affair, very much of a storm in a teacup, petty, paltry, quite unworthy of prolonged discussion such as this? She certainly thought so, in her youthful fervour and inexperience; while—the push of awakening womanhood giving new colour and richness to her conception of life—nature cried out for a certain extravagance in heroism, in largeness of action of aspiration. She was athirst for noble horizons, in love with beauty, with the magnificence of things, seen and unseen alike. In love with superb objectives even if only to be reached through a measure of suffering, and—searching, arresting, though the thought was to her—possibly through peril of death.

In such moods there is small room for a Bilson regime and outlook. A flavour of scorn marked her tone as she answered at last:

“Oh, you can lay the blame on me—or rather tell the truth, which amounts to the same thing. Say that, my father being away, I refused my consent to the horses being taken out. Say you appealed to me but I was hopelessly obstinate. It is very simple.”

CHAPTER III. A SAMPLING OF FREEDOM

When two persons, living under the same roof, have the misfortune to fall out a hundred and one small ways are ready to hand for the infliction of moral torment. The weak, it may be added, are not only far more addicted to such inflictings than the strong, but far more resourceful in their execution. Theresa Bilson's conduct may furnish a pertinent example.

From the moment of emerging from her bed-chamber, next morning, she adopted an attitude which she maintained until she regained the chaste seclusion of that apartment at night. During no instant of the intervening hours did she lapse from studied speechlessness unless directly addressed, nor depart from an air of virtuous resignation to injustice and injury—quite exquisitely provoking to the onlooker. Twice during the morning Damaris, upon entering the schoolroom, discovered her in tears, which she proceeded to wipe away, furtively, with the greatest ostentation.—Dramatic effect, on the second occasion was, however, marred by the fact that she was engaged in retrimming a white chip hat, encircled by a garland of artificial dog-roses, blue glass grapes and assorted foliage—an occupation somewhat ill-adapted to tragedy. In addition to making her ex-pupil—against whom they were mainly directed—first miserable and then naughtily defiant by these manoeuvres, she alienated any sympathy which her red-rimmed eyelids and dolorous aspect might otherwise have engendered in the younger and less critical members of the establishment, by sending Alfred, the hall-boy, up to the vicarage with a note and instructions to wait for an answer, at the very moment when every domestic ordinance demanded his absorption in the cleaning of knives and of boots. Being but human, Alfred naturally embraced the heaven-sent chance of dawdling, passing the time of day with various cronies, and rapturously assisting to hound a couple of wild, sweating and snorting steers along the dusty lane, behind the churchyard, to Butcher Cleave's slaughter-house: with the consequence that his menial duties devolved upon Laura and Lizzie, who, supported by the heads of their respective departments, combined to “give him the what for,” in no measured terms upon his eventual and very tardy return.

It is not too much to say that, by luncheon time Theresa—whether wilfully or not—had succeeded in setting the entire household by the ears; while any inclinations towards peace-making, with which Damaris might have begun the day, were effectively dissipated, leaving her strengthened and confirmed in revolt. Around the stables, and the proposed indignity put upon Patch and the horses, this wretched quarrel centred so—as at once a vote of confidence and declaration of independence—to the stables Damaris finally went and ordered the dog-cart at three o'clock. For she would drive, and drive, throughout the course of this gilded September afternoon. Drive far away from foolishly officious and disingenuous Theresa, far from Deadham, so tiresome just now in its irruption of tea-parties and treats. She would behold peaceful inland horizons, taste the freedom of spirit and the content which the long, smooth buff-coloured roads, leading to unknown towns and unvisited country-side, so deliciously give.

She stood at the front door, in blue linen gown, white knitted jersey and white sailor hat, buttoning her tan doeskin driving-gloves, a gallant, gravely valiant young creature, beautifully unbroken as yet by any real assent to the manifold foulness of life—her faith in the nobility of human nature and human destiny still finely intact. And that was just where her revolt against poor Theresa Bilson came in. For Theresa broke the accepted law, being ignoble; and thereby spoiled the fair pattern, showed as a blot.—Not that she meant to trouble any more about Theresa just now. She was out simply to enjoy, to see and feel, rather than reason, analyse or think. So she settled herself on the sloping high-cushioned seat, bracing her feet against the driving iron, while Mary, reaching up, tucked the dust-rug neatly about her skirts. Patch—whose looks and figure unmistakably declared his calling—short-legged and stocky, inclining to corpulence yet nimble on his feet, clean shaven, Napoleonic of countenance, passed reins and whip into her hands as Tolling, the groom, let go the horse's head.

The girl squared her shoulders a little, and the soft colour deepened in her cheeks, as she swung the dog-cart down the drive and out of the entrance gate into the road—here a green-roofed tunnel, branches meeting overhead, thickly carpeted with dry sand blown inward from the beach—and on past the whitewashed cottages, red brick and grey stone houses of Deadham village, their gardens pleasant with flowers, and with apple and pear trees weighted down by fruit. Past the vicarage and church, standing apart on a little grass-grown monticule, backed by a row of elms, which amid their dark foliage showed here and there a single bough of verdigris-green or lemon-yellow—first harbingers of autumn. Into the open now, small rough fields dotted with thorn bushes and bramble-brakes on the one side; and on the other the shining waters of the Haven. Through the hamlet of Lampit, the rear of whose dilapidated sheds and dwellings abut on reed-beds and stretches of unsightly slime and ooze. A desolate spot, bleak and wind-swept in winter, and even under blue skies, as to-day basking in sunshine, degraded by poverty and dirt.

Some half-mile further is Horny Cross where, as the name indicates, four roads meet. That from Deadham to the edge of the forest runs north; the other, from Beaupres-on-Sea to Marychurch, Stourmouth and Barryport, due west. Damaris, having a fancy to keep the coast-line out of sight, chose the former, following the valley of the Arne, between great flat meadows where herds of dairy cows, of red Devons and black Welsh runts, feed in the rich deep grass. In one place a curve of the river brings it, for three hundred yards or more, close under the hanging woods, only the width of the roadway between the broad stream and living wall of trees. Here transparent bluish shadow haunted the undergrowth, and the air grew delicately chill, charged with the scent of fern, of moist earth, leaf mould, and moss.

Such traffic as held the road was leisurely, native to the scene and therefore pleasing to the sight.—For the age of self-moving machines on land had barely dawned yet; while the sky was still wholly inviolate.—A white tilted miller's wagon, a brewer's dray, each drawn by well-favoured teams with jingling bells and brass-mounted harness, rumbling farm carts, a gypsy van painted in crude yellow, blue, and red and its accompanying rabble of children, donkeys and dogs, a farmer's high-hung, curtseying gig, were in turn met or passed. For the black horse, Damaris driving it, gave place to none, covering the mounting tale of miles handsomely at an even, swinging trot.

At Lady's Oak, a noble tree marking some ancient forest boundary and consequently spared when the needs of the British Navy, during the French wars of the early years of the century, condemned so many of its fellows to the axe—the flattened burnished dome of which glinted back the sunlight above a maze of spreading branches and massive powder-grey trunk—the main road forks. Damaris turned to the left, across the single-arch stone bridge spanning the Arne, and drove on up the long winding ascent from the valley to the moorland and fir plantations which range inland behind Stourmouth. This constituted the goal of her journey, for once the high-lying plateau reached, leagues of country open out far as the eye carries to the fine, bare outline of the Wiltshire downs.

She checked the horse, letting it walk, while she took stock of her surroundings.

It may be asserted that there are two ways of holding converse with Nature. The one is egotistic and sentimental, an imposing of personal tastes and emotions which betrays the latent categoric belief that the existence of external things is limited to man's apprehension of them—a vilely conceited if not actually blasphemous doctrine! The other is that of the seeker and the seer, who, approaching in all reverence, asks no more than leave to listen to the voice of external things—recognizing their independent existence, knowing them to be as real as he is, as wonderful, in their own order as permanent, possibly as potent even for good and evil as himself. And it was, happily, according to this latter reading of the position, instinctively, by the natural bent of her mind, that Damaris attempted converse with the world without.

The glory of the heather had passed, the bloom now showing only as silver-pink froth upon an ocean of warm brown. But the colouring was restful, the air here on the dry gravel soil light and eager, and the sense of height and space exhilarating. A fringe of harebells, of orange hawkweed and dwarf red sorrel bordered the road. Every small oasis of turf, amongst the heath and by the wayside, carried its pretty crop of centaury and wild thyme, of bed-straw, milkwort, and birdsfoot trefoil. Furzechats tipped about the gorse bushes, uttering a sharp, gay, warning note. A big flight of rooks, blue-black against the ethereal blue of the distance, winged their way slowly homeward to the long avenue of dark trees leading to a farm in the valley. The charm of the place was clear and sane, its beauty simple almost to austerity. This the young girl welcomed. It washed her imagination free of the curious questionings, involuntary doubts and suspicions, which the house and garden at The Hard, steeped in tradition, thick with past happenings, past passions, were prone to breed in her. No reek off the mud-flats, any more than over luscious garden scents, tainted the atmosphere. It was virgin as the soil of the moorland—a soil as yet untamed and unfertilized by the labour of man. And this effect of virginity, even though a trifle farouche, harsh, and barren in the perfection of its purity, appealed to Damaris' present mood. Her spirit leapt to meet it in proud fellowship. For it routed forebodings. Discounted introspective broodings. Discounted even the apparently inevitable—since nobody and nothing, so the young girl told herself with a rush of gladly resolute conviction, is really inevitable unless you permit or choose to have them so.—Gallant this, and the mother of brave doings; though—as Damaris was to discover later, to the increase both of wisdom and of sorrow—a half-truth only. For man is never actually master of people or of things; but master, at most, of his own attitude towards them. In this alone can he claim or exercise free-will.

Then—because general ideas, however inspiriting, are rather heavy diet for the young, immature minds growing quickly tired in the efforts to digest them—Damaris, having reached this happy, if partially erroneous, climax of emancipation, ceased to philosophize either consciously or unconsciously. The russet moorland and spacious landscape shut the door on her, had no more to tell her, no more to say. Or, to be strictly accurate, was it not rather perhaps that her power of response, power to interpret their speech and assimilate their message had reached its term? All her life the maturity of her brain had inclined—rather fatiguingly—to outrun the maturity of her body, so that she failed “to continue in one stay” and trivial hours trod close on the heels of hours of exaltation and of insight.

With a sigh and a sense of loss—as though noble companions had withdrawn themselves from her—she gathered up the reins and sent the horse forward. She fell into comfortable friendly conversation with the Napoleonic-countenanced Patch, moreover, consulting him as to the shortest way, through the purlieus of Stourmouth, into the Marychurch high road and so home to Deadham Hard. For, to tell the truth, she became aware she was hungry and very badly in want of her tea.

Theresa Bilson, setting out the next morning in solitary state, contrived to maintain the adopted attitude until the front gates were safely passed. Then she relaxed and looked out of the brougham windows with a fussy brightness more consonant to the joys of impending union with the Miss Minetts and the day's impending trip. She made no further effort to secure Damaris' participation in the social and educational advantages which it promised. On the contrary she left the young lady severely alone and at home, as one administering well-merited punishment. Thus effectively demonstrating, as she wished to believe, her personal authority; and suiting, as she would have stoutly denied, her personal convenience. For Damaris on a string, plus the extra brake and carriage horses, was one story; Damaris on her own, minus those animals and much-debated vehicle, quite another. Unless the presence of her ex-pupil could be made to redound to her own glory, Theresa much preferred reserving representation of The Hard and its distinguished proprietor wholly and solely to herself. So in the spirit of pretence and of make-believe did she go forth; to find, on her return, that spirit prove but a lying and treacherous ally—and for more reasons than one.

It happened thus. Supported by the two brindled tabby house cats, Geraldine and Mustapha—descendants of the numerous tribe honoured, during the last half-century of his long life, by Thomas Clarkson Verity's politely affectionate patronage—Damaris spent the greater part of the morning in the long writing room.

She had judged and condemned Theresa pretty roundly it is true, nevertheless she felt a little hurt and sore at the latter's treatment of her. Theresa need not have kept up the quarrel till the very last so acridly. After all, as she was going out purely for own pleasure and amusement, she might have found something nice and civil to say at parting. And then the mere fact of being left behind, of being out of it, however limited the charms of a party, has a certain small stab to it somehow—as most persons, probing youthful experiences, can testify. It is never quite pleasant to be the one who doesn't go!—The house, moreover, when her father was absent, always reminded Damaris of an empty shrine, a place which had lost its meaning and purpose. To-day, though windows and doors were wide open letting in a wealth of sunshine, it appeared startlingly lifeless and void. The maids seemed unusually quiet. She heard no movement on the staircase or in the rooms above. Neither gardener nor garden-boy was visible. She would have hailed the whirr of the mowing machine or swish of a broom on the lawn.—Oh! if only her poor dear Nannie were still alive, safe upstairs, there in the old nursery!

And at that the child Damaris felt a lump rise in her throat. But the girl, the soon-to-be woman, Damaris choked it down bravely. For nobody, nothing—so she assured herself, going back to the lesson learned yesterday upon the open moorland—is really inevitable unless you suffer or will it so to be. Wherefore she stiffened herself against recognition of loneliness, stiffened herself against inclination to mourning, refused to acquiesce in or be subjugated by either and, to the better forgetting of them, sought consolation among her great-great uncle's books.

For at this period Damaris was an omnivorous reader, eager for every form of literature and every description of knowledge—whether clearly comprehended or not—which the beloved printed page has to give. An eagerness, it may be noted, not infrequently productive of collisions with Theresa, and at this particular juncture all the more agreeable to gratify on that very account. For Theresa would have had her walk only in the narrow, sheltered, neatly bordered paths of history and fiction designed, for the greater preservation of female innocence, by such authors as Miss Sewell, Miss Strickland, and Miss Yonge. Upon Damaris, however, perambulation of those paths palled too soon. Her intellect and heart alike demanded wider fields of drama, of religion and of science, above all wider and less conventional converse with average human nature, than this triumvirate of Victorian sibyls was willing or capable to supply. It is undeniable that, although words and phrases, whole episodes indeed, were obscure even unintelligible to her, she found the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini and Saint Simon more interesting than the “Lives of the Queens of England; Vathek,” more to her taste than “Amy Herbert”; and, if the truth must be told, “The Decameron,” and “Tristram Shandy” more satisfying to her imagination than “The Heir of Redcliffe” or “The Daisy Chain.” To Damaris it seemed, just now, that a book the meaning of which was quite clear to her and could be grasped at sight, hardly repaid the trouble of reading, since it afforded no sense of adventure, no excitement of challenge or of pursuit, no mirage of wonder, no delightful provocation of matters outside her experience and not understood. About these latter she abstained from asking questions, having much faith in the illuminating power of the future. Given patience, all in good time she would understand everything worth understanding.—That there are things in life best not understood, or understood only at your peril, she already in some sort divined.—Hence her reading although of the order obnoxious to pedants, as lacking in method and accurate scholarship, went to produce a mental atmosphere in which honest love of letters and of art, along with generous instincts of humanity quicken and thrive.

On this particular morning Damaris elected to explore to the Near East, in the vehicle of Eoethen's virile and luminous prose. She sat in one of the solid wide seated arm-chairs at the fire-place end of a long room, near a rounded window, the lower sash, of which she raised to its full height. Outside the row of geranium beds glowed scarlet and crimson in the calm light. Beyond them the turf of the lawn was overspread by trailing gossamers, and delicate cart-wheel spider's webs upon which the dew still glittered. In the shrubberies robins sang; and above the river great companies of swallows swept to and fro, with sharp twitterings, restlessly gathering for their final southern flight.

No sooner had Damaris fairly settled down with her book, than Mustapha jumped upon her knees; and after, preliminary buttings and tramplings, curled himself round in gross comfort, his soft lithe body growing warmer and heavier, on her lap, as his sleep deepened. Where a bar of sunshine crossed the leather inset of the writing-table, just beside her in the window, Geraldine—his counterpart as to markings and colouring, but finer made, more slender of barrel and of limb—fitted herself into the narrow space between a silver inkstand and a stack of folded newspapers, her fore-paws tucked neatly under her chest, furry elbows outward. Her muzzle showed black, as did the rims of her eyelids which enhanced the brightness and size of her clear, yellow-green eyes. Her alert, observant little head was raised, as, with gently lashing tail, she watched an imprisoned honey-bee buzzing angrily up and down between the window-sashes.

An elfin creature, Geraldine,—repaying liberal study. Scornfully secure of the potency of her own charms where mankind, or Tomcat-kind, might be concerned, royally devoid of morals, past-mistress in all sprightly, graceful, feline devilries, she was yet a fond mother, solicitous to the point of actual selflessness regarding the safety and well-being of her successive and frequently recurrent litters. She suckled, washed, played with and educated those of her kittens who escaped the rigours of stable-bucket and broom, until such time as they were three to four months old. After which she sent them flying, amid cuffings and spittings extraordinary, whenever they attempted to approach her; and, oblivious of their orphaned and wistful existence, yielded herself with bewitching vivacity, to fresh intrigues and amours new.

The long quiet morning indoors, with cats and books for company, at once soothed Damaris and made her restless. After luncheon she put on hat, gloves, and walking shoes, and went down across the lawn to the sea-wall. Waylaying her in the hall, Mary had essayed to learn her programme, and anchor her as to time and place by enquiring when and where tea should be served. But Damaris put the kindly woman off.—She couldn't say exactly—yet—would ring and let Mary know when she came in. If any one called, she was not at home.

In truth her active young body asked for movement and exercise, while scenes and phrases from the pages of Eoethen still filled her mind. She longed for travel. Not via Marychurch to Harchester, well understood, shepherded by Theresa Bilson, the members of the Deadham Church choir and their supporters; but for travel upon the grand scale, with all its romance and enlargement of experience, its possible dangers and certain hardships, as the author of Eoethen had known it and her father, for that matter, had known it in earlier days too. She suffered the spell of the East—always haunting the chambers of her memory and ready to be stirred in active ascendency, as by her morning's reading to-day—suffered the spell not of its mysterious cities and civilizations alone, but of its vast solitudes and silences, desert winds and desert sands.

And hence it came about that, as her mood of yesterday sent her inland to pacify her imagination by gazing at the peaceful English country-side, so her present mood sent her down to the shore to satisfy, or rather further stimulate, her nostalgia for the East by gazing out to sea.

The cause in both cases was the same, namely, the inward tumult of her awakening womanhood, and still more, perhaps, the tumult of awakening talent which had not as yet found its appointed means of expression. She was driven hither and thither by the push of her individuality to disengage itself from adventitious surroundings and circumstances, and realize its independent existence.—A somewhat perilous crisis of development, fruitful of escapades and unruly impulses which may leave their mark, and that a disfiguring one, upon the whole of a woman's subsequent career.

Immediately, however, Damaris' disposition to defy established convention and routine took the mildest and apparently most innocuous form—merely the making, by herself, of a little expedition which, accompanied by others, she had made a hundred times before. From the terrace she went down the flight of steps, built into the width of the sea-wall, whence a tall wrought-iron gate opens direct upon the foreshore. Closing it behind her, she followed the coastguard-path, at the base of the river-bank—here a miniature sand cliff capped with gravel, from eight to ten feet high—which leads to the warren and the ferry. For she would take ship, with foxy-faced William Jennifer as captain and as crew, cross to the broken-down wooden jetty and, landing there, climb the crown of the Bar and look south-east, over the Channel highway, towards far distant countries of the desert and the dawn.

CHAPTER IV. OUT ON THE BAR

All which was duly accomplished though with a difference. For on reaching the head of the shallow sandy gully opening on the tide, where the flat-bottomed ferry-boat lay, Damaris found not Jennifer but the withered and doubtfully clean old lobster-catcher, Timothy Proud, in possession. This disconcerted her somewhat. His appearance, indeed—as he stood amongst a miscellaneous assortment of sun-bleached and weather-stained foreshore lumber, leaning the ragged elbows of his blue jersey upon the top of an empty petroleum barrel and smoking a dirty clay pipe—was so far from inviting, that the young girl felt tempted to relinquish her enterprise and go back by the way she had come.

But, as she hesitated, the old man catching sight of her and scenting custom, first spat and then called aloud.

“Might 'e be wanting the Ferry, Miss?” Thus directly challenged, Damaris could not but answer in the affirmative.

“Put 'e across to the Bar?” he took her up smartly. “Nat'rally I will—bean't I here for the very purpose?—Put 'e across I will and on the tick too.”

And, after further expectoration, relinquishing the support of the oil barrel, he joined her and shambled down the sandy track at her side, talking. Damaris hastened her step; but bent back and creaking breath notwithstanding, Proud kept pace with her, his speech and movements alike animated by a certain malicious glee.

“William 'e give hisself an 'oliday,” he explained, “to take the little dorgs and ferrets up to Butcher Cleave's ratting. Powerful sight of varmin there allers be round they sheds and places. Comes after the innards and trimmings they do, as bold as you please.”

“Oh, yes—no doubt. I understand,” Damaris said, at once anxious to arrest the flow of his unsavoury eloquence yet to appear civil, since she was about to make use of his services.

“'Normous great rats they be,” he however continued, with evident relish. “'Normous and fierce as tigers, the rascals, what with feasting on flesh and fatness like so many lords. So 'mind the ferry for me, will you, Daddy,' William says, coming round where was I taking my morning pint over at the Inn. 'You're a wonderful valorous man of your years'—and so thank the powers, Miss, I be—'can handle the old scraw as clever as I can myself,' William says. 'There ain't much about water, salt or fresh, nor whatsoever moves on the face of it, nor down below in the belly of it, any man can teach you.' Which may seem putting it a bit high yet ain't no more than truth and justice, Miss, so you needn't fear to trust yourself across the ferry along of me.”

“I have no fear,” Damaris answered curtly and loftily, holding herself very erect, her face slightly flushed, her eyes war-like.

For he was a repulsive old man, and said repulsive things such as she had never heard put thus plainly into words before. She felt soiled by even this brief association with him. She wanted to hear no more of his ugly high-coloured talk, although of his skill as a waterman she entertained no doubt. Stepping lightly and quickly up on to the square stern of the ferry-boat, she went forward and kept her back resolutely turned upon the old fellow as he scrambled on board after her, shoved off and settled to the oars. The river was low, and sluggish from the long drought with consequently easy passage to the opposite bank. It took but a short five minutes to reach the jetty, crawling like some gigantic, damaged, many-legged insect out over the smooth gleaming water.

Instead of the legal twopence, Damaris dropped a couple of shillings into Daddy Proud's eager hand—with a queenly little air; and, without waiting for his thanks, swung herself up on to the black planking and turned to go down the sand-strewn wooden steps.

“Pleased to fetch 'e back, Miss, any hour you like to name,” Proud called after her, standing up and fingering the shillings with one hand while with the other he steered the boat's side away from the slippery weed-grown piles.

“Thank you, I don't quite know when I shall be back,” she answered over her shoulder.

For her main desire was to get quit of his unpleasant neighbourhood. She would go for a long walk by the coast-guard path across the sand-hills, right out to Stone Horse Head. Would stay out till sundown, in the hope that by then Jennifer might have seen fit to exchange the manly joys of ratting for his more prosaic duties at the ferry, and so save her from further association with his displeasing deputy.

But, the ridge of the Bar reached, other thoughts and impulses took possession of her. For the sea this afternoon showed an infinitely beguiling countenance. Not as highway of the nations, still less as violent and incalculable, holding cruelties of storm and tempest in its heart, did it present itself to her view; but rather as some gentle, softly inviting and caressing creature decked forth in the changeful colours of a dove's neck and breast. Opaline haze veiled the horizon, shutting off all unrestful sense of distance. The tide was low and little waves, as of liquid crystal, chased one another over the gleaming sands. Out to where the haze met and covered it the smooth expanse of sea was unbroken by passing boat or ship; nor was any person within sight upon the long line of the beach. Damaris found herself alone—but deliciously alone, with this enchanted dream sea for companion in the sunshine, under the vault of tender blue sky.

And, for the present at least, she asked nothing better, humanity being at a decided discount with her, thanks first to the extreme tiresomeness of Theresa Bilson and later the extreme unsavouriness of Timothy Proud. The element thus eliminated, nothing interfered, nothing jarred; so that she could yield herself to an ecstasy of contemplation, active rather than passive, in that imagination, breaking the bounds of personality, made her strangely one with all she looked on. Consciousness of self was merged in pure delight. Never could she remember to have felt so light-hearted, so happy with the spontaneous, unconditioned happiness which is sufficient to itself, unclouded by thought of what has been or what may be.

Pushed by her own radiant emotion and an instinct, deriving from it, to draw even closer to that Everlasting Beauty of Things which is uncreated by and independent of the will and work of man, she ran down the slope, and sitting on the shingle slipped off her shoes and stockings. Took off her hat, too, and leaving the lot lying there, just above high-tide mark, gathered her skirts in one hand, and, bare-headed thus and bare-footed, danced out over the wet gleaming sands a graceful flying figure, until the little waves played and purred about her ankles. Her action was symbolic, born of the gay worship welling up within her, a giving of herself to the shining infinite of Nature as just now manifest—things divine and eternal glimmering through at her—in this fair hour of solitude and brooding peace.

Till her mood softened, Damaris danced thus alone, unwitnessed on the shore. Then, as she sobered, happy still though the crisis of ecstasy had passed, smaller seeings began to charm her fancy and her eyes.—Pinkish yellow starfish, long ribbons of madder-red or emerald seaweed, their colours the more living and vivid for the clear water covering them. Presently a company of five birds—their mottled brown and olive bodies raised on stilt-like legs thin as a straw—claimed her notice. So bewitched was she by their quaint and pretty ways, that she could not but follow them as they chased one another in and out of the rippling waves, ran quickly and bowed catching something eatable floating upon the tide, scattered and then joined up into a joyous chorus of association with gentle twittering cries. Watching them, dreaming, standing now and again looking out over the sweet wonder of the placid sea, sometimes wading ankle deep, sometimes walking on the firm floor of uncovered sand, Damaris passed onward losing count of time.

The birds led her eastward, up channel, to the half-mile distant nose of the Bar, round which the rivers, released at last from their narrow channel, sweep out into Marychurch Bay. Here, on a sudden, they took wing, and Damaris looking after them, bade them an unwilling farewell, for their innocent society had been sweet. And with that she became aware she was really quite tired and would be glad to rest awhile, the afternoon being young yet, before turning homeward. The longer she stayed the more hope there was of finding Jennifer at the ferry; and more than ever, the glamour of her wild hour of Nature worship still upon her, did she recoil from any sort of association with foul old Timothy Proud.

Therefore she went up across the moist gleaming levels to the tide-line, and picking her way carefully among the black jumble of seaweed and sea-litter which marked it, sat down in a fan-shaped depression in the dry, clean, blown sand some few paces above. The sunshine covered it making it warm to her bare feet. The feel and blond colour of it brought to mind her reading of this morning—a passage in Eoethen telling of the striking of camp at dawn, the desert waiting to claim its own again and obliterate, with a single gesture, all sign or token of the passing sojourn of man. Clasping her hands behind her head, Damaris lay back, the warm sand all around her, giving beneath her weight, fitted itself into the curves of her body and limbs—only it visible and the soft blue of the sky above. For a little while she rested open-eyed in the bright silent stillness, and then, unknowing of the exact moment of surrender, she stretched with a fluttering sigh, turned on her side and dreamlessly slept.

And, while she thus slept, two events took place eminently germane to the further unfolding of this history.—The weather changed, and the local degenerate, Abram Sclanders' half-idiot son—the poor “lippity-lop” who, according to Jennifer, had far better been “put away quiet-like at birth”—committed theft.

Of the first event, Damaris gradually became sensible, before her actual awakening. She grew restless, her bed of sand seeming robbed of comfort, bleak and uneasy, so that she started up, presently, into a sitting position, rubbing her eyes with her fists baby-fashion, unable for the minute to imagine how or why she came to be lying like this out on the Bar, hatless, shoe and stockingless. Looking about her, still in questioning bewilderment, she observed that in the south-west a great bank of cloud had risen. It blotted out the sun, deadening all colour. The opaline haze, turned to a dull falling mist, closed down and in, covering the sand-hills and the dark mass of Stone Horse Head and even blurring the long straight lines of the sandbank and nearer shingle. The sea had risen, but noiselessly, creeping up and up towards her, no line of white marking the edge of its slothful oncoming.

Damaris stood up, pulling her white jersey—the surface of it already furred with moisture—low over her hips. For she felt shivery, and the air was thick and chill to breathe causing a tightness in her throat.

“The glory has departed, very much departed, so I had best make haste to depart also,” she told herself; but told herself gallantly, smiling at her own strange plight in a spirit of adventure, discovering in it the excitement of novel experience.

She picked her way over the shingle and black sea litter of high-water mark, and started to run along the narrow strip between it and the advancing tide. To run would circulate her blood, warm her through and keep her gallant humour up; still she had to own she found this heavy going, for her feet were numb and the sand seemed to pluck at and weigh them down. Her run slackened to a walk. Then she ventured a yard or two out into the shallow water, hoping there to meet with firmer foothold; but here it proved altogether too cold. She had the misfortune, moreover, to tread on the top end of a razor shell, buried upright, which cut the skin making her limp from pain and sharpness of smarting. So perforce, she took to the deep blown sand again above high-water mark, and ploughed along slowly enough in growing weariness and discomfort.

Never, surely, was any half-mile so long as this between the place of her farewell to the mottled stilt-legged birds and subsequent sleeping, and the place where she left her hat and shoes and stockings! In the dimness and chill of the falling mist, it seemed to lengthen and lengthen to an altogether incomprehensible extent. Time and again she stopped and scanned the ground immediately before her, certain she should see there those so lightly discarded and now so earnestly desired items of clothing. Once in possession of them she would simply scurry home. For visions of warm, dry pretty garments, of Mary's, comely ministering presence, of tea, of lamp-light and—yes, she would allow herself that culminating luxury—of a fine log fire in the long sitting-room, presented themselves to her imagination in most alluring sequence—the spirit of adventure, meanwhile, as must be owned, beginning to sing small and hang a diminished head.

But on a sudden, raising her eyes from their persistent search, Damaris realized she must have missed and already passed the spot. For she was close upon the tract of sand-hills—a picture of desolation in the sullen murk, the winding hollows between their pale formless elevations bearing a harsh growth of neutral tinted sword-like grasses.

She had come too far by a quarter of a mile at least, so she judged, and must turn her face eastward again and laboriously plough her way back. But the return journey was crowned with no better success than the outward one. Carefully, methodically she quartered the beach; but simply her things weren't there, had vanished, leaving neither token or trace.

She was confronted moreover by the unpleasant fact that it grew late. Soon the dusk would fall, its coming hastened by the mist, now settling into a steady drizzle of rain precursor of a dark and early night. To hunt any longer would be useless. She must give it up. Yet her maidenly pride, her sense of what is seemly and becoming, revolted from exposing herself to Timothy Proud's coarse leering glances or even—should he by luck be her waterman—to Jennifer's more respectful curiosity, dishevelled and but half-dressed as she was. And then the actual distance to be traversed appeared to her dishearteningly great. For she was weary—quite abominably weary now she came to think of it. Her feet were bruised and blistered. They ached. Her throat ached too, and she shivered. Cold, though it was, she must wait a minute or two and rest before attempting the ascent of the slope.

Damaris sat down, pulling her skirts as low as they would come over her bare legs, and clasping her hands round her knees, bowed, huddled together to gain, if it might be, some sensation of warmth. For a little she thought of that only—warmth—her mind otherwise a blank. But soon the consuming sadness of the place in the waning light penetrated her imagination, penetrated, indeed, her whole being. Only a few hours ago she had danced here, in ecstasy born of the sunshine, the colour, the apparently inexhaustible beauty of things uncreated by, and independent of, the will and work of man. Contrast that scene, and the radiant emotion evoked by it, with this? Which was real, the enduring revelation? Was this truth; the other no more than mirage—an exquisite dissembling and lovely lie?

Such thoughts are hardly wholesome at eighteen—hardly wholesome perhaps at any age, if life is to be lived sweetly, with honest profit to one's own soul and to the souls of others. Yet remembering back, down the dim avenues of childhood, Damaris knew she did not formulate the question, entertain the suspicion, for the first time. Only, until now, it had stayed in the vague, a shapeless nightmare horror, past which she could force herself to run with shut eyes. It didn't jump out of the vague, thank goodness, and bar her passage. But now no running or shutting of eyes availed. It had jumped out. She stared at it, and, in all its undermining power of discouragement, it stared back.—What if the deepest thing, the thing which alone lasted, the thing which, therefore, you were bound in the end to accept, to submit to, was just darkness, sorrow, loneliness of worn body and shrinking spirit, by the shore of a cold, dumb, and tenantless, limitless sea—what then?

From which undesirable abyss of speculation she was aroused by the sound of her own name—“Damaris Verity, hey—Damaris Verity”—shouted, not roughly though in tones of urgent command, from above and behind her on the crest of the Bar. Along with it came the rattle of shifting shingle under a strong active tread.

Hearing which the young girl's senses and faculties alike sprang to attention. She rose from her dejected attitude, stood up and faced round, forgetful of aches and weariness and of woeful ultimate questionings, while in glad surprise her heart went out to meet and welcome the—to her—best beloved being in this, no longer, sorry world.

For even thus, at some fifty yards distant through the blur of falling rain, the figure presented to her gaze, in height, build, and fashion of moving, was delightfully familiar, as were the tones of the voice which had hailed her—if in not quite equal degree the manner of that hail. Some change in his plans must have taken place, or some letter miscarried advising her of her father's earlier return. Finding her out he had come to look for her.—This was perfectly as it should be. Had Colonel Carteret come home with him, she wondered. And then there flashed through her, with a singular vividness, recollection of another, long, long ago escapade—when as a still almost baby child she had stepped off alone, in daring experiment, and fallen asleep, in the open as to-day. But in surroundings how amazingly different!—A place of fountains, cypresses and palms, she curled up in a black marble chair, set throne fashion, upon a platform of blood red sandstone, an age-old Oriental garden outstretched below. Colonel Carteret—“the man with the blue eyes” as she always had called him—awakened her, bringing an adorable and, as it proved in the sequel, a tragic birthday gift.—Tragic because to it might, actually if indirectly, be traced the breaking up of her childhood's home in the stately Indian pleasure palace of the Sultan-i-bagh at Bhutpur, her separation from her father and exile—as she had counted it—to Europe.

It is among the doubtful privileges of highly sensitized natures, such as Damaris', that, in hours of crisis, vision and pre-vision go hand in hand. As there flashed through her remembrance of that earlier sleep in the open, there flashed through her also conviction that history would still further repeat itself. Now, as then, the incident of sleep preluded the receipt of a gift, adorable perhaps, yet freighted with far-reaching consequences to herself and her future. Of just what that gift might consist she had no idea; but of its approach she felt as certain as of the approach of the man swinging down through the rain over the rattling pebbles. And her gladness of welcome declined somewhat. She could have cried off, begged for postponement. For she was very tired, after all. She didn't want anything now, anything which—however delightful in itself—demanded effort, demanded even the exertion of being very pleased. She shied away, in short. And then commendably rallied her forces, resolute not to be found unworthy or ungrateful.

“Yes—come. I am here,” she called in response to that lately heard calling of her name, desiring to make an act of faith whereby to assure herself she was indeed ready, and assure her hearer of her readiness to accept the impending gift.

“I am here,” she began again to affirm, but stopped abruptly, the words choking in her throat.

For, as with decreasing distance the figure grew distinct, she saw, to her blank amazement, not Sir Charles Verity, her father, as she expected, but the blue reefer jacket, peaked cap, and handsome bearded face of Darcy Faircloth, the young merchant sea-captain, emerge from the blur of the wet. And the revulsion of feeling was so sharp, the shock at once so staggering and intimate—as summing up all the last ten days confused experience—that Damaris could not control herself. She turned away with a wail of distress, threw out her hands, and then, covering her eyes with them, bowed her head.

The young man came forward and stood near her; but an appreciable time elapsed before he spoke. When he presently did so, his voice reached her as again singularly familiar in tone, though strange in diction and in accent.

“I'm sorry if I startled you,” he began, “but I hailed you just now, and you told me to come.—I concluded you meant what you said. Not, I'm afraid, that your giving your permission or withholding it would have made much difference in the upshot. Timothy Proud let on, in my hearing, that he set you across the river soon after two o'clock, and that there'd been no call for the ferry since. So I took one of my own boats and just came over to look for you—in case you might have met with some mishap or strayed among the sand-hills and couldn't find your”—

Thus far he spoke with studied calm and restraint. But here, as though struck by a fresh and very objectionable idea, he broke out:

“Nothing has happened has it? No cowardly brute has interfered with you or upset you? Dear God alive, don't tell me I'm too late, don't tell me that.”

Upon Damaris this sudden, though to her unaccountable, violence and heat acted as a cordial. She raised her head, pushing back the damp hair from her forehead, and displaying a proud if strained and weary face.

“No,” she said, “of course not. Who would venture to be rude to me? I have not seen anyone all the afternoon—until now, when you came. And,” she added by way of further explanation—she didn't want to be ungracious or unkind, but she did want, in justice to herself, to have this understood—“in the distance I didn't recognize you. I mistook you for someone else”—

“Who else?” he took her up, and with a queer flicker—if of a smile, then one with a keenish edge to it—in his eyes and about his mouth.

“For my father,” Damaris answered. “It was a stupid mistake, because he is away staying in Norfolk for partridge shooting, and I have not any real reason to expect him home for several days yet.”

“But in this deceptive light,” Faircloth took her up again, while—as she could not help observing—that flicker became more pronounced. It seemed silently to laugh and to mock.—“Oh! to be sure that accounts for your mistake as to my identity. One sees how it might very well come about.”

He took off his cap, and threw back his head looking up into the low wet sky.

“At night all cats are grey, aren't they,” he went on, “little ones as well as big? And it's close on night now, thanks to this dirty weather. So close on it, that—though personally I'm in no hurry—I ought to get you back to The Hard, or there'll be a regular hue and cry after you—rightly and probably too, if your servants and people have any notion of their duty.”

“I am quite ready,” Damaris said.

She strove to show a brave front, to keep up appearances; but she felt helpless and weak, curiously confused by and unequal to dealing with this masterful stranger—who yet, somehow did not seem like a stranger. Precisely in this was the root of her confusion, of her inability to deal with him.

“But hardly as you are,” he commented, on her announcement she was ready. “Let me help to put on your shoes and stockings for you first.” And this he said so gently and courteously, that Damaris' lips began to quiver, very feminine and youthful shame at the indignity of her present plight laying hold on her.

“I can't find them,” she pitifully declared. “I have looked and looked, but I can't find them anywhere. I left my things just here. Can anyone have stolen them while I was out at the end of the Bar? It is so mysterious and so dreadfully tiresome. I should have gone home long ago, before the rain began, if I could have found them.”

And with that, the whole little story—childish or idyllic as you please—of sunshine and colour, of beguiling birds beguiling sea, of sleep, and uneasy awakening when the cloud-bank rising westward devoured the fair face of heaven, of mist and fruitless seeking, even some word of the fear which forever sits behind and peeps over the shoulder of all wonder and all beauty, got itself—not without eloquent passages—quickly yet gravely told. For the young man appeared to derive considerable pleasure from listening, from watching her and from questioning her too—still, gently and courteously though closely, as if each detail were of interest and of value.

“And now you know all about it, Captain Faircloth,” Damaris said in conclusion, essaying to laugh at her own discomfiture. “And I am very tired, so if you will be kind enough to row me across the ferry, I shall be grateful to you, and glad, please, to go home at once.”

“By all means,” he answered. “Only, you know, I can't very well let you cut your feet to pieces on these cruel stones, so I am just going to carry you up over the Bar”—

“No—no—I can perfectly well walk. I mean to walk—see,” she cried.

And started courageously up the rough ascent, only to slip, after a few paces, and to stagger. For as soon as she attempted to move, she felt herself not only weak, but oddly faint and giddy. She lurched forward, and to avoid falling instinctively clutched at her companion's outstretched hand. Exactly what passed between the young man and young girl in that hand-clasp—the first contact they had had of one another—it might seem far-reached and fantastic to affirm; yet that it steadied not only Damaris' trembling limbs, but her trembling and over-wrought spirit, is beyond question. For it was kind and more than kind—tender, and that with the tenderness of right and usage rather than of sentimental response to a passing sentimental appeal.

“There, there,” he said, “what's the use of working to keep up this little farce any longer? Just give in—you can't put off doing so in the end. Why not at once, then, accept defeat and spare both yourself and me pain? You are no more fit to walk, than you are fit to fly—to fly away from me!—That's what you want, isn't it? Ah! that flight will come, no doubt, all in good time.—But meanwhile, be sensible. Put your left arm round my neck—like this, yes. Then—just a little hoist, and, if you'll not worry but keep still, nothing's easier.”

As he spoke, Faircloth stooped, lightly and with no apparent exertion lifting her high, so that—she clasping his neck as instructed—the main weight of her body rested upon his shoulder. With his right arm he held her just above the waist, his left arm below her knees cradling her.

“Now rest quiet,” he said. “Know you are safe and think only of comfortable things—among them this one, if you care to, that for once in my life I am content.”

Yet over such yielding and treacherous ground, upward to the crown of the ridge and downward to the river, progress could not be otherwise than slow. Twilight, and that of the dreariest and least penetrable, overtook them before Faircloth, still carrying the white-clothed figure, reached the jetty. Here, at the bottom of the wooden steps he set Damaris down, led her up them and handed her into the boat—tied up to, and the tide being at the flood, now little below the level of the staging.

CHAPTER V. WHEREIN DAMARIS MAKES SOME ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE HIDDEN WAYS OF MEN

Throughout their singular journey—save for briefest question and answer about her well-being at the commencement of it—the two had kept silence, as though conscious Faircloth's assertion of contentment struck a chord any resolution of which might imperil the simplicity of their relation. Thus far that relation showed a noble freedom from embarrassment. It might have continued to do so but for a hazardous assumption on his part.

When first placing Damaris in the stern of the boat, the young man stripped off his jacket and, regardless of her vaguely expressed protest, wrapped it round her feet. It held the living warmth of his body; and, chilled, dazed, and spent, as Damaris was, that warmth curiously soothed her, until the ink-black boat floating upon the brimming, hardly less inky, water faded from her knowledge and sight. She drooped together, passing into a state more comparable to coma than to natural slumber, her will in abeyance, thought and imagination borne under by the immensity of her fatigue.

As Faircloth, meanwhile, pulled clear of the outstanding piles of the jetty, he heard voices and saw lights moving down by the ferry on the opposite shore. But these, and any invitation they might imply, he ignored. If the hue and cry after Damaris, which he had prophesied, were already afoot, he intended to keep clear of it, studiously to give it the slip. To this end, once in the fairway of the river he headed the boat downstream, rowing strongly though cautiously for some minutes, careful to avoid all plunge of the oars, all swish of them or drip. Then, the lights now hidden by the higher level and scrub of the warren, he sat motionless letting the boat drift on the seaward setting current.

The fine rain fell without sound. It shut out either bank creating a singular impression of solitude and isolation, and of endlessness too. There seemed no reason why it should ever cease. And this delusion of permanence, the enclosing soft-clinging darkness served to heighten. The passage of time itself seemed arrested—to-morrow becoming an abstraction, remote and improbable, which could, with impunity, be left out of the count. With this fantastic state of things, Faircloth had no quarrel. Though impatient of inaction, as a rule definite and autocratic enough, he really wasn't aware of having any particular use for to-morrow. Content still held sway. He was satisfied, profoundly, yet dreamingly, satisfied by an achievement long proposed, long waited for, the door upon which had opened to-day by the merest accident—if anything can justly be called accident, which he inclined to believe it could not.

He had appointed, it should be added, a limit in respect of that achievement, which he forbade himself to pass; and it was his habit very rigidly to obey his own orders, however little disposed he might be to obey those of other people. He had received, as he owned, more than he could reasonably have expected, good measure pressed down and running over. The limit was now reached. He should practise restraint—leave the whole, affair where it stood. But the effect of this darkness, and of drifting, drifting, over the black water in the fine soundless rain, with its illusion of permanence, and of the extinction of to-morrow—and the retributions and adjustments in which to-morrow is so frequently and inconveniently fertile—enervated him, rendering him a comparatively easy prey to impulse, should impulse chance to be stirred by some adventitious circumstance. The Devil, it may be presumed, is very much on the watch for such weakenings of moral fibre, ready to pounce, at the very shortest notice, and make unholy play with them!

To Faircloth's ruminative eyes, the paleness in the stern of the boat, indicating Damaris Verity's drooping figure, altered slightly in outline. Whereupon he shipped the oars skillfully and quietly, and going aft knelt down in front of her. Her feet were stretched out as, bowed together, she sat on the low seat. His jacket had slipped away exposing them to the weather, and the young man laying his hands on them felt them cold as in death. He held them, chafed them, trying to restore some degree of circulation. Finally, moved by a great upwelling of tenderness and of pity, and reckoning her, since she gave no sign, to be asleep, he bent down and put his lips to them.

But immediately the girl's hands were upon his shoulders.

“What are you doing, oh! what are you doing?” she cried.

“Kissing your feet.”

Then the Devil, no doubt, flicking him, he let go restraint, disobeyed his own orders, raised his head, and looking at her as in the enfolding obscurity she leaned over him, said:

“And, if it comes to that, who in all the round world has a better right than I, your brother, to kiss your feet?”

For some, to him, intolerable and interminable seconds, Faircloth waited after he had shot his bolt. The water whispered and chuckled against the boat's sides in lazy undertones, as it floated down the sluggish stream. Beyond this there was neither sound nor movement. More than ever might time be figured to stand still. His companion's hands continued to rest upon his shoulders. Her ghostly, dimly discerned face was so near his own that he could feel, now and again, her breath upon his forehead; but she was silent. As yet he did not repent of his cruelty. The impulse which dictated it had not spent itself. Nevertheless this suspense tried him. He grew impatient.

“Damaris,” he said, at last, “speak to me.”

“How can I speak to you when I don't understand,” she answered gravely. “Either you lie—which I should be sorry to accuse you of doing—or you tell me a very terrible thing, if, that is, I at all comprehend what you say.—Are you not the son of Mrs. Faircloth, who lives at the inn out by the black cottages?”

“Yes, Lesbia Faircloth is my mother. And I ask for no better. She has squandered love upon me—squandered money, upon me too; but wisely and cleverly, with results. Still—” he paused—“well, it takes two, doesn't it, to make a man? One isn't one's mother's son only.”

“But Mrs. Faircloth is a widow,” Damaris reasoned, in wondering directness. “I have heard people speak of her husband. She was married.”

“But not to my father. Do you ask for proofs—just think a minute. Whom did you mistake me for when I called you and came down over the Bar in the dusk?”

“No—no—” she protested trembling exceedingly. “That is not possible. How could such a thing happen?”

“As such things mostly do happen. It is not the first case, nor will it by a long way, I reckon, be the last. They were young, and—mayn't we allow—they were beautiful. That's often a good deal to do with these accidents. They met and, God help them, they loved.”

“No—no—” Damaris cried again.

Yet she kept her hands on Faircloth's shoulders, clinging to him in the excessive travail of her innocent spirit—though he racked her—for sympathy and for help.

“For whom, after all, did you take me?” he repeated. “If there wasn't considerable cause it would be incredible you should make such a mistake. Can you deny that I am hall-marked, that the fact of my parentage is written large in my flesh?”

He felt her eyes fixed on him, painfully straining to see him through the rain and darkness; and, when she spoke again, he knew she knew that he did not lie.

“But wasn't it wrong” she said.

“I suppose so. Only as it gave me life and as I love life I'm hardly the person to deliver an unbiased opinion on that point.”

“Then you are not sad, you are not angry?” Damaris presently and rather unexpectedly asked.

“Yes—at times both, but not often or for long together. As I tell you I love life—love it too well to torment myself much about the manner of my coming by it. It might show more refinement of feeling perhaps to hang my head and let a certain ugly word blast my prospects. But I don't happen to see the business that way. On the contrary I hope to get every ounce of advantage out of it I can—use it as a spur rather than a hobble. And I love my profession too. It gives you room and opportunity. I am waiting now for my first ship, my first command. That's a fine thing and a strong one. For your first ship is as a bride to you, and your first command makes you as a king among men. Oh! on a small scale I grant; but, as far as it reaches, your authority is absolute. On board your own ship you are master with a vengeance—if you like. And I do like.”

Faircloth said the last few words softly, but with a weight of meaning not to be misunderstood. He bent down, once more, chafed Damaris' feet and wrapped his jacket carefully round them.

“And, while you and I are alone together, there is something—as we've spoken so freely—which I want to tell you, so that there may be no misconception about me or about what I want.—As men in my rank of life go, I am well off. Rich—again on a small scale; but with means sufficient to meet all my needs. I'm not a spend-thrift by nature, luckily. And I have amply enough not only to hold my own in my profession and win through, but to procure myself the pleasures and amusements I happen to fancy. I want you to remember that, please. Tell me is it quite clear to you?”

“Yes,” Damaris said, “you have made it quite clear.”

Yet for the first time he jarred on her, as with a more than superficial difference of breeding and of class. This mention of money offended her taste, seeming to lower the level upon which their extraordinary and—to her—terrible conversation had thus far moved. It hurt her with another kind of hurting—not magnificent, not absorbing, but just common. That in speaking of money he was protecting himself, proudly self-guarding his own honour and that of his mother, Lesbia Faircloth, never, in her innocence of what is mean and mercenary, occurred to Damaris.

So she took her hands off his shoulders and clasped them in her lap. Clasped them with all her poor strength, striving even in this extreme, to maintain some measure of calm and of dignity. She must hold out, she told herself, just simply by force of will hold out, till she was away from him. After that, chaos—for thoughts, discoveries, apprehensions of possibilities in human intercourse hitherto undreamed of, were marshalled round her in close formation shoulder to shoulder. They only waited. An instant's yielding on her part, and they would be on to her, crushing down and in, making her brain reel, her mind stagger under their stifling crowded assault.

“Go back and row,” she said, at once imploring and imperious. “Row quickly. I am very tired. I am cold. I want to be at home—to be in my own place.”

CHAPTER VI. RECOUNTING AN ASTONISHING DEPOSITION

Theresa Bilson bustled upstairs. Barring the absence of the extra brake, which had caused—and for this she could not be sorry since didn't it justify her “attitude” towards her recalcitrant ex-pupil?—some inconvenient overcrowding in transit to and from the station, and barring the rain, which set in between five and six o'clock, the expedition to Harchester passed off with considerable eclat. Such, in any case, was Theresa's opinion, she herself having figured conspicuously in the foreground. During the inspection of the Cathedral the Dean paid her quite marked attention; thanks, in part, to her historical and archaeological knowledge—of which she made the most, and to her connection with the Verity family—of which she made the most also. In precisely what that connection might consist, the learned and timid old gentleman, being very deaf and rather near-sighted, failed to gather. He determined, however, to be on the safe side.

“Our genial Archdeacon,” he said, “and his distinguished kinsman, Sir Charles? Ah! yes—yes—indeed—to be sure—with the greatest pleasure.”

And he motioned the blushing Theresa to fall into step with him, and with Dr. Horniblow, at the head of the Deadham procession.

The afterglow of that triumphal progress irradiated her consciousness still, when—after depositing the Miss Minetts upon their own doorstep, with playful last words recalling the day's mild jokes and rallyings—she drove on to The Hard to find the household there in a state of sombre and most admired confusion.

Thus to arrive home in possession of a fine bag of news, only to discover an opposition and far finer bag ready awaiting you may well prove trying to the most high-souled and amiable of temper. By this time, between success and fatigue, Theresa could not be justly described as either high-souled or sweet tempered. She was at once inflated and on edge, and consequently hotly indignant, as though the unfairest march possible had been stolen upon her.

She bustled upstairs, and crossing the landing turned into the schoolroom passage—a long, lamp-lit vista, hung with old Chinese wall-paper, the running pattern of buds and flowers, large out of all proportion to the bridges, palms, pagodas and groups of little purple and blue-clad men and women disposed, in dwindling perspective, upon its once white surface. Half-way along the passage, their backs towards her, Mary and Mrs. Cooper, the cook—a fair, mild middle-aged, and cow-like person, of ample proportions—stood conversing in smothered tones.

“And it's my belief he's been and told her, or anyhow that she guesses, pore dear young lady,” the latter, with upraised hands, lamented.

Theresa just caught these strange words. Caught too, Mary's hurried rejoinder—“For mercy's sake, Mrs. Cooper, not a hint of that to any living soul”—before the two women, sensible of the swish and patter of her self-important entry, turned and moved forward to meet, or—could it be?—to intercept her. Their faces bore a singular expression, in Mrs. Cooper's case of sloppy, in Mary's of stern yet vivid alarm. Deeply engaged though she was with her private grievance, Miss Bilson could not but observe this. It made her nervous.

“What is the meaning,” she began, her voice shrill with agitation, “of the extraordinary story about Miss Damaris which Laura reports to me? Someone is evidently very much in fault.”

“Please don't speak quite so loud, Miss,” Mary firmly admonished her. “I've just got Miss Damaris quieted off to sleep, and if she's roused up again, I won't answer for what mayn't happen.”

“But what has happened? I insist upon knowing,” Theresa declared, in growing offence and agitation.

“Ah! that's just what we should be thankful enough to have you tell us, Miss,” Mrs. Cooper chimed in with heavy and reproachful emphasis upon the pronouns.

To even the mild and cow-like revenge is sweet. Though honestly distressed and scared, the speaker entertained a most consoling conviction she was at this moment getting even with Theresa Bilson and cleverly paying off old scores.

“The pore dear young lady's caught her death as likely as not, out there across the river in the wet, let alone some sneaking rascal making off with her stockings and shoes. When I saw her little naked feet, all blue with the cold, it made my heart bleed, regularly bleed, it did. I could only give thanks her Nanna, pore Mrs. Watson, who worshipped the very ground Miss Damaris trod on, was spared living to see that afflicting sight.”

Then with a change of tone exasperating—as it was designed to be—to one, at least, of her hearers, she added:

“I'll have that soup ready against Miss Damaris wakes, Mary, in case she should fancy it. Just touch the bell, will you, and I'll bring it up myself. It's not suitable to give either of the girls a chance for prying. They're a deal too curious as it is. And I'm only too pleased to watch with you, turn and turn about, as I told you, whenever you feel to require a rest. Lizzie will have to see to the cooking anyhow—except what's wanted for Miss Damaris. I couldn't put my mind into kitchen work to-night, not if you paid me ever so.”

And on large flat feet she moved away towards the back-staircase, leading down to the offices from the far end of the passage, leaving an odour of pastry behind her and of cloves.

“To think of what to-morrow may bring, ah! dear me,” she murmured as she went.

During the ten minutes or so which immediately followed Theresa Bilson boxed the compass in respect of sensations, the needle, as may be noted, invariably quivering back to the same point—namely, righteous anger against Damaris. For was not that high-spirited maiden's imperviousness to influence and defiance of authority—her, Theresa's, influence and authority—the mainspring of all this disastrous complication? Theresa found it convenient to believe so, and whip herself up to almost frantic determination in that belief. It was so perfectly clear. All the more clear because her informant, Mary, evidently did not share her belief. Mary's account of to-day's most vexatious transactions betrayed partizanship and prejudice, such as might be expected from an uneducated person, offering—as Theresa assured herself—a pertinent example of the workings of “the servant mind.” Nevertheless uneasy suspicion dogged her, a haunting though unformulated dread that other persons—one person above all others—might endorse Mary's prejudices rather than her own, so reasonably based, conviction.

“If only Mr. Patch had been in there'd have been somebody to depend on,” the woman told her, recounting the anxious search after vanished Damaris. “But he'd driven into Marychurch of course, starting ever so early because of the parcels he had your orders to call for at the several shops, before meeting the train. And the gardeners had left work on account of the wet; so we'd nobody to send to make enquiries anywhere except Tolling, and that feather-head Alfred, who you can't trust half a minute out of your sight.” Here she paused in her narrative and made a move, adroitly driving Theresa Bilson before her out on to the landing, thus putting a greater distance between that tormented spinster and the neighbourhood of Damaris' bed-chamber. Her handsome brown eyes held the light of battle and her colour was high. She straightened a chair, standing against the wall at the stair-head, with a neatly professional hand in passing.

“Mrs. Cooper and I were fairly wild waiting down on the sea-wall with the lantern, thinking of drowning and—worse,—when”—she glanced sharply at her companion and, lowering her eyes altered the position of the chair by a couple of inches—“when Captain Faircloth's boat came up beside the breakwater and he carried Miss Damaris ashore and across the garden.”

“Stop”—Theresa broke in—“I do not follow you. Faircloth, Captain Faircloth? You are not, I earnestly hope, speaking of the owner of that low public-house on the island?”

“Yes—him,” Mary returned grimly, her eyes still lowered.

“And do you mean me to understand that this young man carried Miss Damaris—actually carried her”—Miss Bilson choked and cleared her throat with a foolish little crowing sound—“carried her all the way into the house—in his arms?”

“Yes, in his arms, Miss. How else would you have had him carry her?—And, as gentle and careful as any woman could, too—into the house and right upstairs here”—pointing along the passage as if veritably beholding the scene once more—“and into her own bedroom.”

“How shocking. How extremely improper!”

Theresa beat her fat little hands hysterically together. She credited herself with emotions of the most praiseworthy and purest; ignorant that the picture conjured up before her provoked obscure physical jealousies, obscure stirrings of latent unsatisfied passion. More than ever, surely, did the needle quiver back to that fixed point of most righteous anger.

“Such—such a proceeding cannot have been necessary. It ought not to have been permitted. Why did not Miss Damaris walk?”

“Because she was in a dead faint, and we'd all the trouble in life to bring her round.”

“Indeed,” she said, and that rather nastily. “I am sorry, but I cannot but believe Miss Damaris might have made an effort to walk—with your assistance and that of Cooper, had you offered it. As I remarked at first, someone is evidently very much to blame. The whole matter must be thoroughly sifted out, of course. I am disappointed, for I had great confidence in you and Cooper—two old servants who might really have been expected to possess some idea of the—the respect due to their master's daughter. What will Sir Charles say when he hears of this objectionable incident?”

“That's just what Mrs. Cooper and I are wondering, Miss,” Mary took her up with so much meaning that Miss Bilson inwardly quailed, sensible of having committed a rather egregious blunder. This she made efforts to repair by sheering off hurriedly on another tack.

“Not that I shall trouble Sir Charles with the matter, unless circumstances arise which compel me to do so—as a duty. My great object, of course, is at all times to spare him any domestic annoyance.”

She began pulling off her gloves, a new pair and tight. Her hands were moist and the glove-fingers stuck, rendering their removal lengthy and difficult.

“To-morrow I shall have a thorough explanation with Miss Damaris and decide what action it is my duty to take after hearing her version of the events of this afternoon. I should prefer speaking to her to-night—”

“Miss Damaris isn't fit to talk about anything to-night.”

Theresa pulled at the right-hand glove—the kid gave with a little shriek, the thumb splitting out. She was in a state of acute indecision. Could she retire from this contest without endangering her authority, without loss of prestige, or must she insist? She had no real wish to hasten to her ex-pupil's bedside. She would be glad to put off doing so, glad to wait. She was conscious of resentment rather than affection. And she felt afraid, unformulated suspicion, unformulated dread, again dogging her. That Damaris was really ill, she did not believe for an instant. Damaris had excellent health. The maids exaggerated. They delighted in making mysteries. Uneducated persons are always absurdly greedy of disaster, lugubriously credulous.—Yes, on the whole she concluded to maintain her original attitude, the attitude of yesterday and this morning; concluded it would be more telling to keep up the fiction of disgrace—because—Theresa did not care to scrutinize her own motives or analyse her own thought too closely. She was afraid, and she was jealous—jealous of Damaris' beauty, of the great love borne her by her father, jealous of the fact that a young man—hadn't she, Theresa, seen the young sea-captain once or twice in the village recently and been fluttered by his notable good looks?—had rescued the girl, and carried her home, carried her up here across the landing and along the familiar schoolroom passage, with its patterned Chinese wall-paper, gently and carefully, in his arms.

And these qualifying terms—gentle and careful—rankled to the point even of physical disturbance, so that Miss Bilson again became guilty of inelegantly choking, and clearing her throat for the second time with a foolish crowing sound.

“I will postpone my interview with Miss Damaris until after breakfast to-morrow,” she said, thus leaving Mary Fisher virtually, if not admittedly, master of the field.

But long before breakfast time, in the grey and mournful autumn morning, Patch rattled the dog-cart the seven miles into Stourmouth, as fast as the black horse could travel, to fetch Damaris' old friend, the retired Indian Civil surgeon, Dr. McCabe. For, coming to herself, in the intervals of distracted fever dreams, she had asked for him, going back by instinct to the comfort of his care of her in childish illnesses long ago. Since she was ill enough, so Mary said, to need a doctor, let it be him.

“Not Mr. Cripps out of the village, or Dr. Risdon from Marychurch. I won't see them. I will not see anyone from near here. Keep them away from me,” she commanded. “I know Miss Bilson will try to send for one or the other. But I won't see either. Promise you'll keep them away.”

When, after his visit, Theresa Bilson, considerably flustered and offended, found McCabe breakfasting in the dining-room and offered profuse apologies for the inconvenience to which he must have been put by so early and unnecessary a call, the tender-hearted and garrulous, but choleric Irishman cut her uncommonly short.

“And would you be supposing then, that if the dear blessed child should be desirous of consulting me I wouldn't have rejoiced to come to her a thousand times as early and from ten thousand times as far?” he enquired, between large mouthfuls of kidney and fried bacon. “The scheming little pudding-faced governess creature, with a cherry nose and an envious eye to her”—he commented to himself.

“But you do not apprehend anything serious?” Theresa said stiffly—“Merely a slight chill?”

“With a temperature dancing up and down like a mad thing between a hundred and one and a hundred and three? I'm dashed if I like the looks of her at all, at all, Miss Bilson; and I am well acquainted with her constitution and her temperament. She's as delicate a piece of feminine mechanism as it's ever been my fortune to handle, and has been so from a child. Mind and body so finely interwoven that you can't touch the one without affecting the other—that is where danger comes in.—And I am glad to find she has so competent a nurse as Mary Fisher—a wholesome woman and one to put faith in. I have given my full instructions to her.”

“But I”—Theresa began fussily, her face crimson.

“Oh! I don't doubt you're devotion itself; only my first consideration is my patient, and so I make free to use my own judgment in the selection of my assistants. No disrespect to you, my dear lady. You are at home in more intellectual spheres than that of the sick-room. And now,” he wiped his mouth with his napkin, twinkling at her over the top of it with small blue-grey eyes, at once merry, faithful, and cunning—“I'll be bidding you good-bye till the evening. I have told Mary Fisher I'll be glad to sleep here to-night. And I'll despatch a telegram to Sir Charles on my way through the village.”

“Sir Charles?” Theresa cried.

“Yes,” he answered her. “I find the darling girl's illness as serious as that.”

CHAPTER VII. A SOUL AT WAR WITH FACT

The deepest and most abiding demand of all sentient creatures, strong and weak alike, is for safety, or, that being unattainable, for a sense of safety, an illusion even of safety.

This, so universal demand, dictated, in Damaris' case, her prayer for Dr. McCabe's attendance. He belonged to the safeties of her childhood, to the securely guarded, and semi-regal state—as, looking back, she recalled it—of the years when her father held the appointment of Chief Commissioner at Bhutpur. Dr. McCabe was conversant with all that; the sole person available, at this juncture, who had lot or part in it. And, as she had foreseen—when drifting down the tide-river in the rain and darkness—once the supporting tension of Faircloth's presence removed, chaos would close in on her. It only waited due opportunity. That granted, as a tempest-driven sea it would submerge her. In the welter of the present, she clutched at the high dignities and distinctions of the past as at a lifebelt. Not vulgarly, in a spirit of self-aggrandizement; but in the simple interests of self-preservation, as a means of keeping endangered sanity afloat. For the distinctions and dignities of that period were real too, just as uncontrovertible a contribution to her knowledge of men and of things, just as vital an element in her experience, as chaos let loose on her now. The one in no degree invalidated the truth or actuality of the other.

But to keep this in mind, to remember it all the time, while imagination galloped with fever brought on by chill and exposure, and reason wandered, losing touch with plain commonsense through the moral shock she had sustained, was difficult to the point of impossibility. She needed a witness, visible and material, to the fact of those former happier conditions; and found it, quaintly enough, in the untidy person and humorous, quarrelsome, brick-dust coloured face—as much of the said face, that is, as was discoverable under the thick stiff growth of sandy hair surrounding and invading it—of the Irish doctor, as he sat by her bed, ministered to and soothed her with reverent and whimsical delicacy.

As long as he was there, her room retained its normal, pleasant and dainty aspect. All Damaris' little personal effects and treasures adorning dressing and writing-tables, the photographs and ornaments upon the mantelshelf, her books, the prints and pictures upon the walls—even the white dimity curtains and covers, trellised with small faded pink and blue roses—seemed to smile upon her, kindly and confiding. They wanted to be nice, to console and encourage her—McCabe holding them in place and in active good-will towards her, somehow, with his large freckled, hairy-backed hands. But let him go from the room, let him leave her, and they turned wicked, behaving as they had behaved throughout the past rather dreadful night and adding to the general chaos by tormenting tricks and distortions of their own.

The beloved photographs of her father, in particular, were cruel. They grew inordinately large, stepped out of their frames, and stalked to and fro in troops and companies. The charcoal drawing of him—done last year by that fine artist, James Colthurst, as a study for the portrait he was to paint—hanging between the two western windows, at right angles to her bed where she could always see it, proved the worst offender. It did not take the floor, it is true, but remained in its frame upon the wall. Yet it too came alive, and looked full at her, compelling her attention, dominating, commanding her; while, slowly, deliberately it changed, the features slightly losing their accentuation, growing youthful, softer in outline, the long drooping moustache giving place to a close-cut beard. The eyes alone stayed the same, steady, luminous, a living silence in them at once formidable and strangely sad. Finally—and this the poor child found indescribably agitating and even horrible—their silence was broken by a question. For they asked what she, Damaris, meant to say, meant to do, when he—her father, the all-powerful Commissioner Sahib of her babyhood's faith and devotion—came home here, came back?

Yet whose eyes, after all, were they which thus asked? Was it not, rather the younger man, the bearded one, who claimed, and of right, an answer to that question? And upon Damaris it now dawned that these two, distinct yet interchangeable personalities—imprisoned, as by some evil magic in one picture—were in opposition, in violent and impious conflict, which conflict she was called upon, yet was powerless, to avert or to assuage.

Not once but many times—since the transformation was persistently recurrent—the girl turned her face to the wall to gain relief from the sight of it and the demand it so fearfully embodied, pressing her dry lips together lest any word should escape them. For the whole matter, as she understood it was secret, sacred too as it was agonizing. No one must guess what lay at the root of her present suffering—not even comfortable devoted Mary, nor that invaluable lifebelt, Dr. McCabe. She held the honour of both those conflicting interchangeable personalities in her hands; and, whether she were strong enough to adjust their differences or not, she must in no wise betray either of them. The latent motherhood in her cried out to protect and to shield them both, to spare them both. For in this stage of the affair, while the hallucinations of deadly fever—in a sense mercifully—confused her, its grosser aspects did not present themselves to her mind. She wandered through mazes, painful enough to tread; but far removed from the ugliness of vulgar scandal. That her sacred secret, for instance, might be no more than a secret de Polichinelle suspected by many, did not, so far, occur to her.

Believing it to be her exclusive property, therefore, she, inspired by tender cunning, strove manfully to keep it so. To that end she made play with the purely physical miseries of her indisposition.—With shivering fits and scorching flushes, cold aching limbs and burning, aching head. With the manifold distractions of errant blood which, leaving her heart empty as a turned-down glass, drummed in her ears and throbbed behind her eyeballs. These discomforts were severely real enough, in all conscience, to excuse her for being self-occupied and a trifle selfish; to justify a blank refusal to receive Theresa Bilson, or attempt to retail and discuss the events of yesterday. All she craved was quiet, to be left alone, to lie silent in the quiet light of the covered grey day.

In the earlier hours of it, silver rain showers travelled across the sea to spend themselves, tearfully, against the panes of her bedroom windows. But towards evening the cloud lifted, revealing a watery sunset, spread in timid reds and yellows behind Stone Horse Head and the curving coast-line beyond, away to Stourmouth and Barryport. The faint tentative colours struck in long glinting shafts between the trunks and branches of the stone pines and Scotch firs in the so-called Wilderness—a strip of uncultivated land within the confines of the grounds dividing the gardens from the open Warren to the West—and gleamed in at the windows, faintly dyeing the dimity hangings and embroidered linen counterpane of Damaris' bed.

Throughout the afternoon she had been less restless. So that Mary Fisher, judging her to be fairly asleep, some five minutes earlier had folded her needlework together, and, leaving the chair where she sat sewing, went softly from the room.

But that brightening of sunset disturbed Damaris, bringing her slowly awake. For a time she lay watching, though but half consciously the tinted radiance as—the trees now stirred by a little wind drawing out of the sunset—it shifted and flitted over the white surfaces. At first it pleased her idle fancy. But presently distressed her, as too thin, too chill, too restlessly unsubstantial, the veriest chippering ghost of colour and of light. It affected her with a desolating sadness as of failure; of great designs richly attempted but petering out into a pitiful nothingness; of love which aped and mimicked, being drained of all purpose and splendour of hot blood; of partings whose sorrow had lost its savour, yet which masqueraded in showy crape for a heart-break long grown stale and obsolete.

Her temperature rushed up; and she threw off the bedclothes, raising herself on her elbow, while the shafts of thin brightness wavered fitfully. Through them she saw the photographs of her father step out of their frames again, and growing very tall and spare, stalk to and fro. Other figures joined them—those of women. Her poor dear Nannie, in the plain quaker-grey cotton gown and black silk apron she used to wear, even through the breathless hot-weather days, at the Sultan-i-bagh long ago. And Henrietta Pereira, too, composed and delicately sprightly, arrayed in full flounced muslins and fine laces with an exquisiteness of high feminine grace and refinement which had enthralled her baby soul and senses, and, which held her captive by their charm even yet. A handsome, high-coloured full-breasted, Eurasian girl, whom she but dimly recollected, was there as well. And with these another—carrying very certainly no hint of things oriental about her—an English woman and of the people, in dull homely clothing, grave of aspect and of bearing; yet behind whose statuesque and sternly patient beauty a great flame seemed to quiver, offering sharp enough contrast to the frail glintings of the rain-washed sunset amid which she, just now, moved.

At sight of the last comer, Damaris started up, tense with wonder and excitement, since she knew—somehow—this final visitant belonged not to the past so much as to the present, that her power was unexhausted and would go forward to the shaping of the coming years. Which knowledge drew confirmation from what immediately followed. For, as by almost imperceptible degrees the brightness faded in the west, the figures, so mysteriously peopling the room, faded out also, until only the woman in homely garments was left. By her side stood the charcoal drawing of Sir Charles Verity from off the wall—or seemed to do so, for almost at once, Damaris saw that dreaded interchange of personality again take place. Saw the strongly marked features soften in outline, the face grow bearded yet younger by full thirty years.

Both the woman and the young man looked searchingly at her; and in the eyes of both she read the same question—what did she mean to do, what to say, when her father, the object of her adoration, came home to her, came back to Deadham Hard?

“I will do right,” she cried out loud to them in answer, “Only trust me. I am so tired and it is all so difficult to believe and to understand. But I am trying to understand. I shall understand, if you will give me time and not hurry me. And, when I understand, indeed, indeed, you may trust me, whatever it costs, to do right.”

Just then Mary opened the door, entering quickly, and behind her came Dr. McCabe, to find Damaris talking, talking wildly, sitting up, parched and vivid with fever, in the disordered bed.

CHAPTER VIII. TELLING HOW TWO PERSONS, OF VERY DIFFERENT MORAL CALIBRE, WERE COMPELLED TO WEAR THE FLOWER OF HUMILIATION IN THEIR RESPECTIVE BUTTONHOLES

Cross-country connections by rail were not easy to make, with the consequence that Sir Charles Verity,—Hordle, gun-cases, bags and portmanteaux, in attendance—did not reach The Hard until close upon midnight.

Hearing the brougham at last drive up, Theresa Bilson felt rapturously fluttered. Her course had been notably empty of situations and of adventure; drama, as in the case of so many ladies of her profession—the pages of fiction notwithstanding—conspicuously cold-shouldering and giving her the go-by. Now, drama, and that of richest quality might perhaps—for she admitted the existence of awkward conjunctions—be said to batter at her door. She thought of the Miss Minetts, her ever-willing audience. She thought also—as so frequently during the last, in some respects, extremely unsatisfactory twenty-four hours—of Mr. Rochester and of Jane Eyre. Not that she ranged herself with Jane socially or as to scholastic attainments. In both these, as in natural refinement, propriety and niceness of ideas, she reckoned herself easily to surpass that much canvassed heroine. The flavour of the evangelical charity-school adhered—incontestably it adhered, and that to Jane's disadvantage. No extravagance of Protestantism or of applied philanthropy, thank heaven, clouded Theresa's early record. The genius of Tractarianism had rocked her cradle, and subsequently ruled her studies with a narrowly complacent pedantry all its own. Nevertheless in moments of expansion, such as the present, she felt the parallel between her own case and that of Jane did, in certain directions, romantically hold. Fortified by thought of the Miss Minetts' agitated interest in all which might befall her, she indulged in imaginary conversations with that great proconsul, her employer—the theme of which, purged of lyrical redundancies, reduced itself to the somewhat crude announcement that “your daughter, yes, may, alas, not impossibly be taken from you; but I, Theresa, still remain.”

When, however, a summons to the presence of the said employer actually reached her, the bounce born of imaginary conversations, showed a tendency, as is its habit, basely to desert her and soak clean away. She had promised herself a little scene, full of respectful solicitude, of sympathy discreetly offered and graciously accepted, a drawing together through the workings of mutual anxiety leading on to closer intercourse, her own breast, to put it pictorially, that on which the stricken parent should eventually and gratefully lean. But in all this she was disappointed, for Sir Charles did not linger over preliminaries. He came straight and unceremoniously to the point; and that with so cold and lofty a manner that, although flutterings remained, they parted company with all and any emotions even remotely allied to rapture.

Charles Verity stood motionless before the fire-place in the long sitting-room. He still wore a heavy frieze travelling coat, the fronts of it hanging open. His shoulders were a trifle humped up and his head bent, as he looked down at the black and buff of the tiger skin at his feet. When Theresa approached with her jerky consequential little walk—pinkly self-conscious behind her gold-rimmed glasses—he glanced at her, revealing a fiercely careworn countenance, but made no movement to shake hands with or otherwise greet her. This omission she hardly noticed, already growing abject before his magnificence—for thus did his appearance impress her—which, while claiming her enthusiastic admiration, enjoined humility rather than the sentimental expansions in which her imaginary conversations had so conspicuously abounded.

“I have seen Dr. McCabe,” he began. “His report of Damaris' condition is very far from reassuring. He tells me her illness presents peculiar symptoms, and is grave out of all proportion to its apparent cause. This makes me extremely uneasy. It is impossible to question her at present. She must be spared all exertion and agitation. I have not attempted to see her yet.”

He paused, while anger towards her ex-pupil waxed warm in Theresa once again. For the pause was eloquent, as his voice had been when speaking about his daughter, of a depth of underlying tenderness which filled his hearer with envy.

“I must therefore ask you, Miss Bilson,” he presently went on, “to give me a detailed account of all that took place yesterday. It is important I should know exactly what occurred.”

Whereat Theresa, perceiving pitfalls alike in statement and in suppression of fact, hesitated and gobbled to the near neighbourhood of positive incoherence, while admitting, and trying to avoid admitting, how inconveniently ignorant of precise details she herself was.

“Perhaps I erred in not more firmly insisting upon an immediate enquiry,” she said. “But, at the time, alarm appeared so totally uncalled for. I assumed, from what was told me, and from my knowledge of the strength of Damaris' constitution, that a night's rest would fully restore her to her usual robust state of health, and so deferred my enquiry. The servants were excited and upset, so I felt their account might be misleading—all they said was so confused, so far from explicit. My position was most difficult, Sir Charles,” she assured him and incidentally, also, assured herself. “I encountered most trying opposition, which made me feel it would be wiser to wait until this morning. By then, I hoped, the maids would have had time to recollect themselves and recollect what is becoming towards their superiors in the way of obedience and respect.”

Charles Verity threw back his head with a movement of impatience, and looked down at her from under his eyelids—in effect weary and a little insolent.

“We seem to be at cross purposes, Miss Bilson,” he said. “You do not, I think quite follow my question. I did not ask for the servants' account of the events of yesterday—whatever those events may have been—but for your own.”

“Ah! it is so unfortunate, so exceedingly unfortunate,” Theresa broke out, literally wringing her hands, “but a contingency, an accident, which I could not possibly have foreseen—I cannot but blame Damaris, Sir Charles”—

“Indeed?” he said.

“No, truly I cannot but blame her for wilfulness. If she had consented—as I so affectionately urged—to join the choir treat to Harchester, this painful incident would have been spared us.”

“Am I to understand that you went to Harchester, leaving my daughter here alone?”

“Her going would have given so much pleasure in the parish,” Theresa pursued, dodging the question with the ingenuity of one who scents mortal danger. “Her refusal would, I knew, cause sincere disappointment. I could not bring myself to accentuate that disappointment. Not that I, of course, am of any importance save as coming from this house, as—as—in some degree your delegate, Sir Charles.”

“Indeed?” he said.

“Yes, indeed,” Theresa almost hysterically repeated.

For here—if anywhere—was her chance, as she recognized. Never again might she be thus near to him, alone with him—the normal routine made it wholly improbable.—And at midnight too. For the unaccustomed lateness of the hour undoubtedly added to her ferment, provoking in her obscure and novel hopes and hungers. Hence she blindly and—her action viewed from a certain angle—quite heroically precipitated herself. Heroically, because the odds were hopelessly adverse, her equipment, whether of natural or artificial, being so conspicuously slender. Her attempt had no backing in play of feature, felicity of gesture, grace of diction. The commonest little actress that ever daubed her skin with grease-paint, would have the advantage of Theresa in the thousand and one arts by which, from everlasting, woman has limed twigs for the catching of man. Her very virtues—respectability, learning, all the proprieties of her narrowly virtuous little life—counted for so much against her in the present supreme moment of her self-invented romance.

“You hardly, I dare say,” she pursued—“how should you after the commanding positions you have occupied?—appreciate the feelings of the inhabitants of this quiet country parish towards you. But they have a lively sense, believe me, of the honour you confer upon them, all and severally—I am speaking of the educated classes in particular, of course—by residing among them. They admire and reverence you so much, so genuinely; and they have extended great kindness to me as a member of your household. How can I be indifferent to it? I am thankful, Sir Charles, I am grateful—the more so that I have the happiness of knowing I owe the consideration with which I am treated, in Deadham, entirely to you.—Yes, yes,” she cried in rising exaltation, “I do not deny that I went to Harchester yesterday—went—Dr. Horniblow thus expressed it when inviting me—'as representing The Hard.' I was away when Damaris made this ill-judged excursion across the river to the Bar. Had she confided her intention to me, I should have used my authority and forbade her. But recently we have not been, I grieve to say, on altogether satisfactory terms, and our parting yesterday was constrained, I am afraid.”

Theresa blushed and swallowed. Fortunately her sense of humour was limited; but, even so, she could not but be aware of a dangerous decline. Not only of bathos, but of vulgar bathos, from which gentility revolted, must she be the exponent, thanks to Damaris' indiscretion!

“You require me to give you the details, Sir Charles,” she resumed, “and although it is both embarrassing and repugnant to me to do so, I obey. I fear Damaris so far forgot herself—forgot I mean what is due to her age and position—as to remove her shoes and stockings and paddle in the sea—a most unsuitable and childish occupation. While she was thus engaged her things—her shoes and stockings—appear to have been stolen. In any case she was unable to find them when tired of the amusement she came up on to the beach. Moreover she was caught in the rain. And I deeply regret to tell you—but I merely repeat what I learned from Mary Fisher and Mrs. Cooper when I returned—it was not till after dark, when the maids had become so alarmed that they despatched Tolling and Alfred to search for her, that Damaris landed from a boat at the breakwater, having been brought down the river—by—by”—

Throughout the earlier portion of her recital Charles Verity stood in the same place and same attitude staring down at the tiger skin. Twice or thrice only he raised his eyes, looking at the speaker with a flash of arrogant interrogation.

Upon one, even but moderately, versed in the secular arts of twig-liming, such flashes would have acted as an effective warning and deterrent. Not so upon Theresa. She barely noticed them, as blindly heroic, she pounded along leading her piteous forlorn hope. Her chance—her unique chance, in nowise to be missed—and, still more, those obscure hungers, fed by the excitement of this midnight tete-a-tete, rushed her forward upon the abyss; while at every sputtering sentence, whether of adulation, misplaced prudery, or thinly veiled animosity towards Damaris, she became more tedious, more frankly intolerable and ridiculous to him whose favour she so desperately sought. Under less anxious circumstances Charles Verity might have been contemptuously amused at this exhibition of futile ardour. Now it exasperated him. Yet he waited, in rather cruel patience. Presently he would demolish her, if to do so appeared worth the trouble. Meanwhile she should have her say, since incidentally he might learn something from it bearing upon the cause of Damaris' illness.

But now, when, at the climax of her narrative, Theresa—seized by a spasm of retrospective resentment and jealousy, the picture of the young man carrying the girl tenderly in his arms across the dusky lawns arising before her—choked and her voice cracked up into a bat-like squeaking, Charles Verity's self-imposed forbearance ran dry.

“I must remind you that neither my time nor capacity of listening are inexhaustible, Miss Bilson,” he said to her. “May I ask you to be so good as to come to the point. By whom was Damaris rescued and brought home last night?”

“Ah! that is what I so deeply regret,” Theresa quavered, still obstinately dense and struggling with the after convulsion of her choke. “I felt so shocked and annoyed on your account, Sir Charles, when the maids told me, knowing how you would disapprove such a—such an incident in connection with Damaris.—She was brought home, carried”—she paused—“carried indoors by the owner of that objectionable public-house on the island. He holds some position in the Mercantile Marine, I believe. I have seen him recently once or twice myself in the village—his name is Faircloth.”

Theresa pursed up her lips as she finished speaking. The glasses of her gold pince-nez seemed to gleam aggressively in the lamp-light. The backs of the leather-bound volumes in the many book-cases gleamed also, but unaggressively, with the mellow sheen—as might fancifully be figured—of the ripe and tolerant wisdom their pages enshrined. The pearl-grey porcelain company of Chinese monsters, saints and godlings, ranged above them placid, mysteriously smiling, gleamed as well.

For a time, silence, along with these various gleamings, sensibly, even a little uncannily, held possession of the room. Then Charles Verity moved, stiffly, and for once awkwardly, all of a piece. Backed against the mantelshelf, throwing his right arm out along it sharply and heavily—careless of the safety of clock and of ornaments—as though overtaken by sudden weakness and seeking support.

“Faircloth? Of course, his name is Faircloth.” he repeated absently. “Yes, of course.”

But whatever the nature of the weakness assailing him, it soon, apparently, passed. He stood upright, his face, perhaps, a shade more colourless and lean, but in expression fully as arrogant and formidably calm as before.

“Very well, Miss Bilson,” he began. “You have now given me all the information I require, so I need detain you no longer—save to say this.—You will, if you please, consider your engagement as my daughter's companion terminated, concluded from to-night. You are free to make such arrangements as may suit you; and you will, I trust, pardon my adding that I shall be obliged by your making them without undue delay.”

“You do not mean,” Theresa broke out, after an interval of speechless amazement—“Sir Charles, you cannot mean that you dismiss me—that I am to leave The Hard—to—to go away?”

“I mean that I have no further occasion for your services.”

Theresa waved her arms as though playing some eccentric game of ball.

“You forget the servants, the conduct of the house, Damaris' need of a chaperon, her still unfinished education—All are dependent upon me.”

“Hardly dependent,” he answered. “These things, I have reason to think, can safely be trusted to other hands, or be equally safely be left to take care of themselves.”

“But why do you repudiate me?” she cried again, rushing upon her fate in the bitterness of her distraction. “What have I done to deserve such harshness and humiliation?”

“I gave the most precious of my possessions—Damaris—into your keeping, and—and—well—we see the result. Is it not written large enough, in all conscience, for the most illiterate to read?—So you must depart, my dear Miss Bilson, and for everyone's sake, the sooner the better. There can be no further discussion of the matter. Pray accept the fact that our interview is closed.”

But Theresa, now sensible that her chance was in act of being finally ravished away from her, fell—or rose—perhaps more truly the latter—into an extraordinary sincerity and primitiveness of emotion. She cast aside nothing less than her whole personal legend, cast aside every tradition and influence hitherto so strictly governing her conduct and her thought. Unluckily the physical envelope could not so readily be got rid of. Matter retained its original mould, and that one neither seductive nor poetic.

She went down upon her fat little knees, held her fat little hands aloft as in an impassioned spontaneity of worship.

“Sir Charles,” she prayed, while tears running down her full cheeks splashed upon her protuberant bosom—“Sir Charles”—

He looked at the funny, tubby, jaunty, would-be smart, kneeling figure.

“Oh! you inconceivably foolish woman,” he said and turned away.

Did more than that—walked out into the hall and to his own rooms, opening off the corridor. In the offices a bell tinkled. Theresa scrambled on to her feet, just as Hordle, in response to its summons, arrived at the sitting-room door.

“Did you ring, Miss?” he asked grudgingly. Less than ever was she in favour with the servants' hall to-night.

Past intelligible utterance, Theresa merely shook her head in reply. Made a return upon herself—began to instruct him to put out the lamps in the room. Remembered that now and henceforth the right to give orders in this house was no longer hers; and broke into sobbing, the sound of which her handkerchief pressed against her mouth quite failed to stifle.

About an hour later, having bathed and changed, Sir Charles Verity made his way upstairs. Upon the landing Dr. McCabe met him.

“Better,” he said, “thank the heavenly powers, decidedly better. Temperature appreciably lower, and the pulse more even. Oh! we're on the road very handsomely to get top dog of the devil this bout, believe me, Sir Charles.”

“Then go to bed, my dear fellow,” the other answered. “I will take over the rest of the watch for you. You need not be afraid. I can be an admirable sick-nurse on occasion. And by the way, McCabe, something has come to my knowledge which in my opinion throws considerable light upon the symptoms that have puzzled you. Probably I shall be more sure of my facts before morning. I will explain to you later, if it should seem likely to be helpful to you in your treatment of the case. Just now, as I see it, the matter lies exclusively between me”—he smiled looking at his companion full and steadily—“between me”—he repeated, “and my only child.”

All which upon the face of it might, surely, be voted encouraging enough. Yet:

“Should there be any that doubt the veritable existence of hell fire,” the doctor told himself, as he subsequently and thankfully pulled on his night-shirt, “to recover them, and in double quick time, of their heresy let 'em but look in my friend Verity's eyes.”—And he rounded off the sentence with an oath.

CHAPTER IX. AN EXPERIMENT IN BRIDGE-BUILDING OF WHICH TIME ALONE CAN FIX THE VALUES

Damaris lay on her side, her face turned to the wall. When Charles Verity, quietly crossing the room, sat down in an easy chair, so placed at the head of the half-tester bed as to be screened from it by the dimity curtains, she sighed and slightly shifted her position.

Leaning back, he crossed his legs and let his chin drop on his breast. He had barely glanced at her in passing, receiving a vague impression of the outline of her cheek, of her neck, and shoulders, of her head, dark against the dim whiteness on which it rested, and the long dark stream of her hair spread loose across the pillows. He had no wish for recognition—not yet awhile. On the contrary, it was a relief to have time in which silently to get accustomed to her presence, to steep himself in the thought of her, before speech should define the new element intruded, as he believed, into his and her relation. Though little enough—too little, so said some of his critics—hampered by fear in any department, he consciously dreaded the smallest modification of that relation. Among the many dissatisfactions and bitternesses of life, it shone forth with a steady light of purity and sweetness, as a thing unspoiled, unbreathed on, even, by what is ignoble or base. And not the surface of it alone was thus free from all breath of defilement. It showed clear right through, as some gem of the purest water. To keep it thus inviolate, he had made sacrifices in the past neither easy nor inconsiderable to a man of his temperament and ambitions. Hence that its perfection should be now endangered was to him the more exquisitely hateful.

Upon the altar of that hatred, promptly without scruple he sacrificed the wretched Theresa. Most of us are so constituted that, at a certain pass, pleasure—of a sort—is to be derived from witnessing the anguish of a fellow creature. In all save the grossly degenerate that pleasure, however, is short-lived. Reflection follows, in which we cut to ourselves but a sorry figure. With Charles Verity, reflection began to follow before he had spent many minutes in Damaris' sick-room. For here the atmosphere was, at once, grave and tender, beautifully honest in its innocence of the things of the flesh.—The woman had been inconceivably foolish, from every point of view. If she had known, good heavens, if she had only known! But he inclined now to the more merciful view that, veritably, she didn't know; that her practical, even her theoretic, knowledge was insufficient for her to have had any clear design. It was just a blind push of starved animal instinct. Of course she must go. Her remaining in the house was in every way unpermissible; still he need not, perhaps, have been so cold-bloodedly precipitate with her.

Anyhow the thing was done—it was done—He raised his shoulders and making with his hands a graphic gesture of dismissal, let his chin drop on to his breast again.

For the East had left its mark on his attitude towards women with one exception—that of his daughter—Charles Verity, like most men, not requiring of himself to be too rigidly consistent. Hence Theresa, and all which pertained to her, even her follies, appeared to him of contemptibly small moment compared with the developments for which those follies might be held accidentally responsible. His mind returned to that main theme painfully. He envisaged it in all its bearings, not sparing himself. Suffered, and looked on at his own suffering with a stoicism somewhat sardonic.

Meanwhile Damaris slept. His nearness had not disturbed her, indeed he might rather suppose its effect beneficent. For her breathing grew even, just sweetly and restfully audible in the intervals of other sounds reaching him from out of doors.

The wind, drawing out of the sunset, freshened during the night. Now it blew wet and gustily from south-west, sighing through the pines and Scotch firs in the Wilderness. A strand of the yellow Banksia rose, trained against the house wall, breaking loose, scratched and tapped at the window-panes with anxious appealing little noises.

Many years had elapsed since Charles Verity spent a night upstairs in this part of the house, and by degrees those outdoor sounds attracted his attention as intimately familiar. They carried him back to his boyhood, to the spacious dreams and projects of adolescence. He could remember just such gusty wet winds swishing through the trees, such petulant fingering of errant creepers upon the windows, when he stayed here during the holidays from school at Harchester, on furlough from his regiment, and, later, on long leave from India, during his wonderful little great-uncle's lifetime.

And his thought took a lighter and friendlier vein, recalling that polished, polite, encyclopedic minded and witty gentleman, who had lived to within a few months of his full century with a maximum of interest and entertainment to himself, and a minimum of injury or offence to others. To the last he retained his freshness of intellectual outlook, his insatiable yet discreet curiosity. Taking it as a whole, should his life be judged a singularly futile or singularly enviable one? Nothing feminine, save on strictly platonic lines, was recorded to have entered it at any period. Did that argue remarkable wisdom or defective courage, or some abnormal element in a composition otherwise deliciously mundane and human?

Charles had debated this often. Even as a boy it had puzzled him. As a young man he had held his own views on the subject, not without lasting effect. For one winter he had passed at The Hard, in the fine bodily health and vigour of his early thirties, this very lack of women's society contributed, by not unnatural reaction, to force the idea of woman hauntingly upon him—thereby making possible a strange and hidden love passage off the Dead Sea fruit of which he was in process of supping here to-night.

He moved, bent forward, setting his elbows on the two chair arms, closing his eyes as he listened, and leaning his forehead upon his raised hands. For in the plaintive voice of the moist, fitful southwesterly wind how, to his bearing, the buried, half-forgotten drama re-lived and reenacted itself!

It dated far back, to a period when his career was still undetermined, hedged about by doubts and uncertainties—before the magnificent and terrible years of the Mutiny brought him, not only fame and distinction, but a power of self-expression and of plain seeing.—Before, too, his not conspicuously happy marriage. Before the Bhutpur appointment tested and confirmed his reputation as a most able if most autocratic ruler. Before, finally, his term of service under the Ameer in Afghanistan—that extraordinary experience of alternate good and evil fortune in barbaric internecine warfare, the methods and sentiments of which represented a swing back of three or four centuries, Christianity, and the attitude of mind and conduct Christianity inculcates, no longer an even nominal factor, Mahomet, sword in hand, ruthlessly outriding Christ.

He had done largely more than the average Englishman, of his age and station, towards the making of contemporary history. Yet it occurred to him now, sitting at Damaris' bedside, those intervening years of strenuous public activity, of soldiering and of administration, along with the honours reaped in them, had procured cynically less substantial result, cynically less ostensible remainder, than the brief and hidden intrigue which preceded them. They sank away as water spilt on sand—thus in his present pain he pictured it—leaving barely a trace. While that fugitive and unlawful indulgence of the flesh not only begot flesh, but spirit,—a living soul, henceforth and eternally to be numbered among the imperishable generations of the tragic and marvellous children of men.

Then, aware something stirred close to him, Charles Verity looked up sharply, turning his head; to find Damaris—raised on one elbow planted among the pillows—holding aside the dimity curtain and gazing wonderingly yet contentedly in his face.

“Commissioner Sahib,” she said, softly, “I didn't know you'd come back. I've had horrid bad dreams and seemed to see you—many of you—walking about. The room was full of you, you over and over again; but not like yourself, frightening, not loving me, busy about something or somebody else. I didn't at all enjoy that.—But I am awake now, aren't I? I needn't be frightened any more; because you do love me, don't you—and this really is you, your very ownself?”

She put up her face to be kissed. But he, in obedience to an humility heretofore unfelt by and unknown to him, leaning sideways kissed the hand holding aside the curtain rather than the proffered lips.

“Yes, my darling, very surely it is me,” he said. “Any multiplication of specimens is quite superfluous—a single example of the breed is enough, conceivably more than enough.”

But to his distress, while he spoke, he saw the content die out of Damaris' expression and her eyes grow distended and startled. She glanced oddly at the hand he had just kissed and then at him again.

“It seems to me something must have happened which I can't exactly remember,” she anxiously told him, sitting upright and leaving go the curtain which slipped back into place shutting off the arm-chair and its occupant. “Something real, I mean, not just bad dreams. I know I had to ask you about it, and yet I didn't want to ask you.”

Charles Verity rose from his place, slowly walked the length of the room; and, presently returning, stood at the foot of the bed. Damaris still sat upright, her hands clasped, her hair hanging in a cloud about her to below the waist. The light was low and the shadow cast by the bed-curtain covered her. But, through it, he could still distinguish the startled anxiety of her great eyes as she pondered, trying to seize and hold some memory which escaped her. And he felt sick at heart, assured it could be but a matter of time before she remembered; convinced now, moreover, what she would, to his shame and sorrow, remember in the end.

The purity in which he delighted, and to which he so frequently and almost superstitiously had turned for refreshment and the safeguarding of all the finest instincts of his own very complex nature, would, although she remembered, remain essentially intact. But, even so, the surface of it must be, as he apprehended, henceforth in some sort dimmed, and that by the breath of his own long ago misdoing. The revelation of passion and of sex, being practically and thus intimately forced home on her, the transparent innocence of childhood must inevitably pass away from her; and, through that same passing she would consciously go forward, embracing the privileges and the manifold burdens, the physical and emotional needs and aspirations of a grown woman. The woman might, would—such was his firm belief—prove a glorious creature. But it was not she whom he wanted. Her development, in proportion as it was rich and complete, led her away from and made her independent of him.—No, it wasn't she, but the child whom he wanted. And, standing at the foot of Damaris' bed, he knew, with a cruel certainty, he was there just simply to watch the child die.

Yes, it was a mere matter of time. Sooner or later she would put a leading question—her methods being bravely candid and direct. Of course, it was open to him to meet that question with blank denial, open to him to lie—as is the practice of the world when such damnably awkward situations come along.—A solution having, in the present case, the specious argument behind it that in so doing he would spare her, save her pain, in addition to the obvious one that he would save his own skin. Moreover, if he lied he could trust Damaris' loyalty. Whether she believed it or not, she would accept his answer as final. No further question upon the subject would ever pass her lips. The temptation was definite and great. For might not the lie, if he could stomach his disgust at telling it, even serve to prolong the life of the child? Should he not sell his honour to save his honour—if it came to that?

Thus he debated, his nature battling with itself, while at that battle he stoically, for a time, looked on. But when, at last, the climax was reached, and Damaris commenced to speak, stoicism dragged anchor. For he could conquer neither his disgust nor his sorrow, could find courage neither for his denial nor for watching the child die. Leaving the foot of the bed, he went and sat down in the arm-chair, where the dimity curtain screened Damaris from his, and him from Damaris' sight.

“Commissioner Sahib,” she began, her voice grave and low, “it has come back to me—the thing I had to ask you, but it is very hard to say. If it makes you angry, please try to forgive me—because it does hurt me to ask you. It hurts me through and through. Only I can't speak of it. I oughtn't just to leave it. To leave it would be wrong—wrong by you.”

“Very well, my darling, ask me then,” he said, a little hoarsely.

“You have heard about my being out on the Bar and—and all that?”

“Yes,” he said, “I have heard.”

“Captain Faircloth, who found me and brought me home, told me something.”

Damaris' voice broke into tones of imploring tenderness.

“I love you, Commissioner Sahib, you know how I love you—but—but is what Captain Faircloth told me true?”

Whereupon temptation surged up anew, inviting, inciting Charles Verity to lie—dressing up that lie in the cloak of most excellent charity, of veritable duty towards Damaris' fine courage and her precious innocence. And he hedged, keeping open, if only for a few minutes longer, the way of escape.

“How can I answer until I know what he did tell you?” he took her up, at last, almost coldly.

“That he is your son—is my brother,” Damaris said.

Even at this pass, Charles Verity waited before finally committing himself, thereby unwittingly giving sentiment—in the shape of the Powers of the Air—the chance to take a rather unfairly extensive hand in the game.

For while he thus waited, he could not but be aware, through the tense silence otherwise reigning in the room, of the tap and scratch of the rose-spray upon the window-panes; of the swish of the moist gusty wind sweeping from across the salt-marsh and mud-flats of the Haven—from the black cottages, too, beyond the warren, gathered, as somewhat sinister boon companions, about the bleak, grey stone-built Inn. And this served to transfix his consciousness with visions of what once had been—he knowing so exactly how it would all sound, all look out there, the wistful desolation, the penetrating appeal bred of the inherent sadness of the place on a wild autumn night such as this.

“Yes,” he said at last, and putting a great constraint upon himself he spoke calmly, without sign of emotion. “What the young man told is true, Damaris, perfectly true.”

“I—I thought so,” she answered back, gravely. “Though I didn't understand”—And, after a moment's pause, with a certain hopelessness of resignation—“Though I don't understand even now.”

In her utterance Charles Verity so distinctly heard the last words of the—to him—dying child, that, smitten with raging bitterness of grief and of regret, he said:

“Nevertheless it is, in my opinion, disgraceful, abominable, that he should have made the occasion, or, to put the matter at its best, have taken advantage of the occasion, when you were alone and, in a sense, at his mercy, to tell you this most unhappy thing.”

“No, no,” Damaris cried, in her generous eagerness catching back the curtain and looking at him nobly unselfconscious, nobly zealous to defend and to set right. “You mustn't think that. He didn't start with any intention of telling me. He fancied I might have lost my way among the sand-hills, that I might be frightened or get some harm, and so came straight to look for me, and take care of me. He was very beautifully kind; and I felt beautifully safe with him—safe in the same way I feel safe with you, almost.”

Her mouth was soft, her eyes alight—dangerously alight now, for her pulse had quickened. As she pleaded and protested her temperature raced up.

“It happened later,” she went on, “when we were in the boat, and it was partly my fault. He wrapped my feet up in his coat. They were very cold. And he believed I was asleep because I didn't speak or thank him. I was so tired, and everything seemed so strange. I couldn't rouse myself somehow to speak. And as he wrapped them in his coat, he kissed my feet, thinking I shouldn't know. But I wasn't asleep, and it displeased me. I felt angry, just as you felt when you condemned him just now.”

“Ah! as I felt just now!” he commented, closing his eyes and, just perceptibly, bowing his head.

“Yes, Commissioner Sahib, as you felt just now—but as, please you mustn't go on feeling.—What he had done seemed to me treacherous; and it pained as well as displeased me. But in all that I was unjust and mistaken.—And it was then, because he saw he'd pained me, displeased and made me angry, that he told me in self-defence—told me to show he wasn't treacherous, but had the right—a right no one else in all the world has over me except yourself.”

“And you believed this young man, you forgave his audacity, and admitted his right?” Sir Charles said.

He leaned back in the angle of the chair, away from her, smiling as he spoke—a smile which both bade farewell and mocked at the sharpness and futility of the grief which that farewell brought with it. For this was a grown woman who pleaded with him surely, acting as advocate? A child, compelled to treat such controversial, such debatable matters at all, would have done so to a different rhythm, in a different spirit.

“Forgave him? But after just the first, when, I had time to at all think of it,” Damaris answered with rather desperate bravery, “I couldn't see there was anything for me to forgive. It was the other way about. For haven't I so much which he might very well feel belonged, or should have belonged, to him?”

“You cut deep, my dear,” Sir Charles said quietly.

Still holding back the curtain with one hand, Damaris flung herself over upon her face. She would not give way, she would not cry, but her soul was in travail. These words, as coming from her father, were anguish to her. She could look at him no longer, and lying outstretched thus, the lines of her gracious body, moulded by the embroidered linen quilt, quivered from head to heel. Still that travail of soul should bring forth fruit. She would not give in, cost what anguish it might, till all was said.

“I only want to do what is right,” she cried, her voice half stifled by the pillows. “You know, surely you know, how I love you, Commissioner Sahib, from morning till night and round till morning again, always and above all, ever since I can first remember. But this is different to anything that has ever happened to me before, and it wouldn't be right not to speak about it. It would be there all the time, and it would creep in between us—between you and me—and interfere in all my thinking about you.”

“It may very well do that in any case, my dear,” he said.

“No—no,” Damaris answered hotly, “not if I do right now—right by both. For you must not entertain wrong ideas about him—about Captain Faircloth I mean. You must not suppose he said a word about my having what might, or ought to be his. He couldn't do so. He isn't the least that sort of person. He took pains to make me understand—I couldn't think why at first, it seemed a little like boasting—that he is quite well off and that he's very proud of his profession. He doesn't want anything from—from us. Oh! no,” she cried, “no.”

And, in her excitement, Damaris raised herself, from the small of her back, resting on her elbows, sphinx-like in posture, her hands and arms—from the elbows—stretched out in front of her across the pillows. Her face was flushed, her eyes blazed. There was storm and vehemence in her young beauty.

“No—he's too much like you, you yourself, Commissioner Sahib, to want anything, to accept anything from other people. He means to act for himself, and make people and things obey him, just as you yourself do. And,” she went on, with a daring surely not a little magnificent under the circumstances—“he told me he loved life too well to care very much how he came by it to begin with.”

Damaris folded her arms, let her head sink on them as she finished speaking, and lay flat thus, her face hidden, while she breathed short and raspingly, struggling to control the after violence of her emotion.

The curtain hung straight. The wind took up its desolate chant again. And Sir Charles Verity sat back in the angle of the arm-chair, motionless, and, for the present, speechless.

In truth he was greatly moved, stirred to the deep places of perception, and of conscience also. For this death of childhood and birth of womanhood undoubtedly presented a rare and telling spectacle, which, even while it rent him, in some aspects enraged and mortified him, he still appreciated. He found, indeed, a strangely vital, if somewhat cruel, satisfaction in looking on at it—a satisfaction fed, on its more humane and human side, by the testimony to the worth of the unknown son by the so well-beloved daughter. Respecting himself he might have cause for shame; but respecting these two beings for whose existence—whether born in wedlock or out of it—he was responsible, he had no cause for shame. In his first knowledge of them as seen together, they showed strong, generous, sure of purpose, a glamour of high romance in their adventitious meeting and companionship.

This was the first, the unworldly and perhaps deepest view of the matter. In it Charles Verity allowed himself to rest, inactive for a space. That there were, not one, but many other views of the said matter, very differently attuned and coloured he was perfectly well aware. Soon these would leap on him, and that with an ugly clamour which he consciously turned from in repulsion and weary disgust. For he was very tired, as he now realized. The anxiety endured during his tedious cross-country journey, the distasteful tragic-comedy of the scene de seduction so artlessly made him by unlucky Theresa Bilsen, followed by this prolonged vigil; lastly the very real tragedy—for such it in great measure remained and must remain—of his interview with Damaris and the re-living of long buried drama that interview entailed, left him mentally and physically spent. He fell away into meditation, mournful as it was indefinite, while the classic lament of another age and race formed itself silently upon his lips.

Comprehenderunt me iniquitates meae, et non potui ut viderem. Multiplicatae sunt super capillos capitis mei; et cor meum dereliquit me,” he quoted, in the plenitude of his existing discouragement.

At his time of life, he told himself, earth held no future; and in heaven—as the Churches figure it—namely, an adjustment of the balance on the other side death, his belief was of the smallest. A sea of uncertainty, vast, limitless, laps the shores of the meagre island of the present—which is all we actually have to our count. Faith is a gift.—You possess it, or you possess it not; yet without it—

But here his attention was caught, and brought home to that very present, by a movement upon the bed and Damaris' voice, asking tremulously:

“Commissioner Sahib are you angry, too angry to speak to me?”

Whereupon Charles Verity got up, gathered back the curtain stuffing it in between the head board and the wall, and stood, tall, spare, yet graceful, looking down at her. Whether from fatigue or from emotion, his expression was softer, his face less keen than usual, and the likeness between him and Darcy Faircloth proportionately and notably great.

“No, my dear,” he said, “why should I be angry? What conceivable right have I to be angry? As a man sows so does he reap. I only reap to-day what I sowed eight or nine-and-twenty years ago—a crop largely composed of tares, though among those tares I do find some modicum of wheat. Upon that modest provision of wheat I must make shift to subsist with the best grace I may. No, don't cry, my darling. It is useless. Tears never yet altered facts. You will only do yourself harm, and put a crown to my self-reproach.”

He sat down on the side of the bed, taking her hand, holding and coaxing it.

“Only let there be no doubt or suspicion on your part, my dear,” he went on. “As you have travelled so far along this dolorous way, take courage and travel a little farther. To stop, to turn back, is only to leave your mind open to all manner of imaginations worse very likely than the truth. I will be quite plain with you. This episode—which I do not attempt to explain or excuse—took place, and ended, several years before I first met your mother. And it ended absolutely. Never, by either written or spoken word, have I held any communication with Lesbia Faircloth since. Never have I attempted to see her—this in the interests of her reputation every bit as much as in those of my own. For her station in life she was a woman of remarkable qualities and character. She had made an ugly, a repulsive marriage, and she was childless.—More than this it is not seemly I should tell you.”

Charles Verity waited a minute or so. He still coaxed Damaris' hand, calmly, soothingly. And she lay very still watching him; but with half-closed eyes, striving to prevent the tears which asked so persistently to be shed. For her heart went out to him in a new and over-flowing tenderness, in an exalted pity almost maternal. Never had she felt him more attractive, more, in a sense, royally lovable than in this hour of weariness, of moral nakedness, and humiliation.

“Not until I had rejoined my regiment in India,” he presently continued, in the same low even tones, “did I hear of the birth of her son. I have never seen him—or made enquiries regarding him. I meant to let the dead bury its dead in this matter. For everyone concerned it seemed best and wisest so. Therefore all you have told me to-night comes as news to me—and in some respects as good news. For I gather I have no reason to be ashamed of this young man—which on your account, even more than on my own, is so much clear gain.—But I oughtn't to have brought you here to live at Deadham. I ought to have taken the possibility of some accidental revelation, such as the present one, into serious account and saved you from that. To expose you, however remotely, to the risk was both callous and stupid on my part. I own I have a strong sentiment for this house. It seemed natural and restful to return to it—the only house to call a home, I have ever had. And so much has happened during the last eight or nine-and-twenty years, to occupy my mind, that I had grown indifferent and had practically forgotten the risks. This was selfish, self-indulgent, lacking in consideration and reverence towards you, towards your peace of mind, your innocence.—And for it, my darling, I beg your forgiveness.”

Damaris sat up in the bed, raised her face to be kissed.

“No—no,” she implored him, “don't say that. I can't bear to have you say it—to have you speak as if you had been, could ever be anything but beautiful and perfect towards me. I can't have you, not even for a little minute, step down, from the high place, which is your own, and talk of forgiveness. It hurts me.—I begin to understand that your world, a man's world, is different to my world—the world, I mean, in which I have been brought up. I know what is right for myself—but it would be silly to believe mine is the only rightness”—

“Ah!” Charles Verity murmured, under his breath, “alas! for the child that is dead.”

And leaning forward he kissed her lips.

CHAPTER X. TELLING HOW MISS FELICIA VERITY UNSUCCESSFULLY ATTEMPTED A RESCUE

With the assistance of the Miss Minetts, reinforced by a bribe of five shillings, Theresa Bilson procured a boy on a bicycle, early the following morning, to convey a note the twelve miles to Paulton Lacy—Mr. Augustus Cowden's fine Georgian mansion, situate just within the Southern boundaries of Arnewood Forest. Miss Felicia Verity, to whom the note was addressed, still enjoyed the hospitality of her sister and brother-in-law; but this, as Mrs. Cowden gave her roundly to understand, must not be taken to include erratic demands upon the stables. If she required unexpectedly to visit her brother or her niece at Deadham Hard, she must contrive to do so by train, and by such hired conveyances as the wayside station of Paulton Halt at this end of her journey, and of Marychurch at the other, might be equal to supplying.

“In my opinion, Felicia, it is quite ridiculous you should attempt to go there at all to-day,” Mrs. Cowden, giving over for the moment her study of the Morning Post, commandingly told her. “If Damaris has got a cold in her head through some imprudence, and if Charles has called Miss Bilson over the coals for not being more strict with her, that really is no reason why Augustus' and my plans for the afternoon should be set aside or why you should be out in the rain for hours with your rheumatism. I shall not even mention the subject to Augustus. We arranged to drive over to Napworth for tea, and I never let anything interfere with my engagements to the Bulparcs as you know. I encourage Augustus to see as much as possible of his own people.—I have no doubt in my own mind that the account of Damaris' illness is absurdly exaggerated. You know how Charles spoils her! She has very much too much freedom; and little Miss Bilson, though well-meaning, is incapable of coping with a headstrong girl like Damaris. She ought—Damaris ought I mean—to have been sent to a finishing school for another year at least. She might then have found her level. If Charles had consulted me, or shown the least willingness to accept my advice, I should have insisted upon the finishing school. It would have been immensely to Damaris' advantage. I have known all along that the haphazard methods of her education were bound to have deplorable results.—But look here, Felicia, if you really intend to go on this wild-goose-chase notwithstanding the rain, let the boy who brought the note order Davis' fly for you on his way back. He passes Paulton Halt. I shall not expect you before dinner to-night. Now that is settled.”

With which she returned to her interrupted study of the Morning Post.

The above pronouncement while rendering Felicia Verity somewhat uneasy, in nowise turned her from her purpose. Her powers of sympathy were as unlimited as they were confused and, too often, ineffective. Forever she ran after the tribulations of her fellow creatures, pouring forth on them treasures of eager sympathy, but without discrimination as to whether the said tribulations were in fact trivial or profound, deserving or deserved. That anyone under any circumstances, should suffer, be uncomfortable or unhappy, filled her with solicitude. The loss of an eyelash, the loss of a fortune, the loss of the hope of a lifetime equally ranked. Illness and disease appealed to her in hardly less degree than unfortunate affairs of the heart. She practised the detection of extenuating circumstances as one might practise a fine art. She wallowed in sentiment, in short; but that with such native good-breeding and singleness of mind, as went far to redeem the said wallowings from morbidity or other offence. Her friends and acquaintances loved her, quite unconscionably made use of her, secretly laughed at her, grew weary of her, declared that “of such are the Kingdom of Heaven;” and, having successfully exploited her, turned with relief to the society of persons frankly belonging to the kingdoms of earth. Men petted but did not propose to her; affected to confide in her, but carefully withheld the heart of their confessions. Tall, thin, gently hurried and bird-like, she yet bore a quaint, almost mirthful, resemblance to her brother, Sir Charles Verity. Such was the lady who responded, in a spirit of liveliest charity, to Theresa's wildly waved flag of distress.

By the time Miss Verity reached Marychurch the rain amounted to a veritable downpour. Driven by the southwesterly wind, it swept in sheets over the low-lying country, the pallid waters, drab mud-flats, dingy grey-green salt-marsh, and rusty brown reed-beds of the estuary. The dusty road, running alongside this last through the hamlets of Horny Cross and Lampit, grew hourly deeper in gritty mud. Beyond question summer and all its dear delights were departed and the chill mournfulness of autumn reigned in their stead.

With the surrounding mournfulness, Miss Verity's simple, yet devious, mind played not ungratefully. For it seemed to her to harmonize with the true inwardness of her mission, offering a sympathetic background to the news of her niece's indisposition and the signals of distress flown by her little protegee, Theresa Bilson. The note addressed to her by the latter was couched in mysterious and ambiguous phrases, the purport of which she failed to grasp. Theresa's handwriting, usually so neat and precise, was wobbly, bearing unmistakable traces of severe agitation and haste. She hinted at nothing short of catastrophe, though whether in relation to herself, to her ex-pupil, or to Sir Charles, Miss Verity couldn't for the life of her discover. It was clear in any case, however, that affairs at The Hard had, for cause unknown, gone quite startlingly astray, and that Theresa found herself entirely unequal to righting them—hence her outcry.

Under these circumstances, it struck Miss Verity as only tasteful and tactful that her approach to the distracted dwelling should take place unheralded by rumble of wheels or beat of horse-hoofs, should be pitched in a, so to speak, strictly modest and minor key. On arriving at the front gate she therefore alighted and, bidding her grumpy and streaming flyman take himself and his frousty landau to the Bell and Horns in Deadham village there to await her further orders, proceeded to walk up the carriage-drive under the swaying, dripping trees.

About fifty yards from the gate the drive turns sharply to the left; and, just at the turn, Miss Verity suddenly beheld a tall figure clad in a seaman's oilskins and sou'wester, coming towards her from the direction of the house. Youth and good looks—more especially perhaps masculine ones—whatever rank of life might exhibit them, acted as a sure passport to Miss Verity's gentle heart. And the youth and good looks of the man approaching her became momentarily more incontestable. His bearing, too, notwithstanding the clumsiness of his shiny black over-garment, had a slightly ruffling, gallantly insolent air to it, eminently calculated to impress her swift and indulgent fancy.

The young man, on his part, calmly took stock of her appearance, as she beat up against the wind, her flapping waterproof cloak giving very inefficient protection to the rather girlish dove-grey cashmere dress, picked out with pink embroidery, beneath it. At first his eyes challenged hers in slightly defiant and amused enquiry. But as she smiled back at him, sweetly eager, ingenuously benignant, his glance softened and his hand went up to his sou'wester with a courteous gesture.

“What weather!” she exclaimed. “How fearfully wet!”—while her expression testified to a flattering interest and admiration.

“Yes, it's a wild day,” he said, in answer. “I expect We've seen the last of the sun, anyhow for this week.”

The incident, though of the most casual and briefest, gave a new direction to Miss Verity's thought. It pleased and intrigued her, bringing a pretty blush to her thin cheeks. “Who and what can he be?” she said to herself. “Where can I have seen him before?” And the blush deepened. “I must really describe him to Charles and find out who he is.”

This monologue brought her as far as the front door, at which, it may be added, she—though by no means impatient—did in point of fact ring twice before the man-servant answered it. Although Mr. Hordle had the reputation of “being fond of his joke” in private life, in his official capacity his manner offered a model of middle-aged sedateness and restraint. To-day neither humour nor reserve were in evidence, but a harassed and hunted look altogether surprising to Miss Verity. He stared at her, stared past her along the drive, before attempting to usher her into the hall and relieve her of her umbrella and her cloak.

“Sir Charles doesn't expect me, Hordle,” she said. “But hearing Miss Damaris was unwell I came over from Paulton Lacy at once.”

“Quite so, ma'am. Sir Charles has not left his room yet. He did not reach home till late, and he sat up with Miss Damaris the rest of the night.”

“Oh! dear—did he? Then, of course, I wouldn't disturb him on any account, Hordle. I had better see Miss Bilson first. Will you tell her I am here?”

“I can send Laura to enquire, ma'am. But, I doubt if Miss Bilson, will care to come downstairs at present.”

“She is with Miss Damaris?”

“No, ma'am, Miss Bilson is not with Miss Damaris.”

Hordle paused impressively, sucking in his under lip.

“If I might presume to advise, ma'am, I think it would be wise you should see Miss Bilson in the schoolroom—and go up by the back staircase, ma'am, if you don't object so as to avoid passing Miss Damaris' bedroom door. I should not presume to suggest it, ma'am, but that our orders as to quiet are very strict.”

In this somewhat ignominious method of reaching her objective Miss Verity, although more and more mystified, amiably acquiesced—to be greeted, when Hordle throwing open the schoolroom door formally announced her, by a sound closely resembling a shriek.

Entrenched behind a couple of yawning trunks, a litter of feminine apparel and of personal effects—the accumulation of a long term of years, for she was an inveterate hoarder—encumbering every available surface, the carpet included, Theresa Bilson stood as at bay.

“My dear friend,” Miss Verity exclaimed advancing with kindly outstretched hands—“what is the meaning of this?”—She looked at the miscellaneous turn-out of cupboards and chests of drawers, at the display of garments not usually submitted to the public gaze. “Are you preparing a rummage sale or are you—but no, surely not!—are you packing? I cannot describe how anxious I am to hear what has occurred. My sister, Mrs. Cowden, was extremely adverse to my facing the bad weather; but, I felt your note could only be answered in person. Let me hear everything.”

She drew Theresa from behind the luggage entrenchments, and, putting aside an assortment of derelict hats and artificial flowers strewn in most admired confusion on the sofa, made her sit down upon the said piece of furniture beside her.

Whereupon, in the pensive, rain-washed, mid-day light, which served to heighten rather than mitigate the prevailing, very unattractive and rather stuffy disorder obtaining in the room, Theresa Bilson, not without chokings and lamentations, gave forth the story of her—to herself quite spectacular—deposition from the command of The Hard and its household. She had sufficiently recovered her normal attitude, by this time, to pose to herself, now as a heroine of one of Charlotte Bronte's novels, now as a milder and more refined sample of injured innocence culled from the pages of Charlotte Yonge. A narrow, purely personal view inevitably embodies an order of logic calculated to carry conviction; and Theresa, even in defeat, retained a degree of self-opinionated astuteness. She presented her case effectively. To be discharged, and that in disgrace, to be rendered homeless, cast upon the world at a moment's notice, for that which—with but trifling, almost unconscious, manipulation of fact—could be made to appear as nothing worse than a venial error of judgment, did really sound and seem most unduly drastic punishment.

Miss Verity's first instinct was to fling herself into the breech; and, directly her brother emerged from his room, demand for her protegee redress and reinstatement. Her second instinct was—she didn't, in truth, quite know what—for she grew sadly perplexed as she listened.

Her sympathy, in fact, split into three inconveniently distinct and separate streams. Of these Theresa's woes still claimed the widest and deepest, since with Theresa she was in immediate and intimate contact. Yet the other two began to show a quite respectable volume and current, as she pictured Damaris marooned on the Bar and Sir Charles ravished away from the seasonable obligation of partridge shooting to take his place at his daughter's bedside.

“But this young Captain Faircloth, of whom you speak,” she presently said, her mind taking one of its many inconsequent skippits—“who so providentially came to the dearest child's assistance—could he, I wonder, be the same really very interesting-looking young man I met in the drive, just now, when I came here?”

And Miss Verity described him, while a pretty stain of colour illuminated her cheek once more.

“You think quite possibly yes?—How I wish I had known that at the time. I would certainly have stopped and expressed my gratitude to him. Such a mercy he was at hand!—Poor dearest Damaris! I hope his good offices have already been acknowledged. Do you know if my brother has seen and thanked him?”

The expression of Theresa's round little face, still puffy and blotched from her last night's weeping, held a world of reproachful remindings.

“Ah! no,” the other cried conscience-stricken—“no, of course not. How thoughtless of me to ask you. And”—another mental skippit—“and that you should be forbidden the sick-room too, not permitted to nurse Damaris! My poor friend, indeed I do feel for you. I so well understand that must have caused you more pain than anything.”

A remark her hearer found it not altogether easy to counter with advantage to her own cause, so wisely let it pass in silence.

“I know—I know, you can hardly trust yourself to speak of it. I am so grieved—so very grieved. But one must be practical. I think you are wise to yield without further protest. I will sound my brother—just find out if he shows any signs of relenting. Of course, you can understand, I ought to hear his view of the matter too—not, that I question your account, dear friend, for one instant. Meanwhile make all your arrangements.”

“The village!”—Theresa put in, with a note of despair this time perfectly genuine.

“Ah, yes—the village. But if I take you away, in my fly I mean, that will give you a position, a standing. It will go far to prevent unpleasant gossip!”

Miss Verity's soul looked out of her candid eyes with a positive effulgence of charity.

“Oh! I can enter so fully into your shrinking from all that. We will treat your going as temporary, merely temporary—in speaking of it both here and at Paulton Lacy. Of course, you might stay with your friends, the good Miss Minetts; but I can't honestly counsel your doing so. I am afraid Sir Charles might not quite like your remaining in Deadham directly after leaving his house. It might be awkward, and give rise to tiresome enquiries and comment. One has to consider those things.—No—I think it would be a far better plan that you should spend a week at Stourmouth. That would give us time to see our way more clearly. I know of some quite nice rooms kept by a former maid of Lady Bulparc's. You would be quite comfortable there—and, as dinner at Paulton Lacy isn't till eight, I could quite well go into Stourmouth with you myself this afternoon. And, my dear friend, you will, won't you, forgive my speaking of this”—

Miss Verity—whose income, be it added, was anything but princely—gave an engagingly apologetic little laugh.

“Pray don't worry yourself on the score of expense. The week in Stourmouth must cost you nothing. As I recommend the rooms I naturally am responsible—you go to them as my guest, of course.—Still I'll sound my brother at luncheon, and just see how the land lies. But don't build too much on any change of front. I don't expect it—not yet. Later, who knows Meanwhile courage—do try not to fret.”

And Miss Verity descended the backstairs again.

“Poor creature—now her mind will be more at rest, I do trust. I am afraid Charles has been rather severe. I never think he does quite understand women. But how should he after only being married for three—or four years, was it?—Such a very limited experience!—It is a pity he didn't marry again, while Damaris was still quite small—some really nice woman who one knows about. But I suppose Charles has never cared about that side of things. His public work has absorbed him. I doubt if he has ever really been in love”—Miss Verity sighed.—“Yes, Hordle, thanks I'll wait in the long sitting-room. Please let Sir Charles know I am there, that I came over to enquire for Miss Damaris. He is getting up?—Yes—I shall be here to luncheon, thanks.”

But, during the course of luncheon, that afore-mentioned split in Miss Verity's sympathies was fated to declare itself with ever growing distinctness. The stream consecrated to Theresa's woes—Theresa herself being no longer materially present—declined in volume and in force, while that commanded by Felicia's affection for her brother soon rushed down in spate. Perhaps, as she told herself, it was partly owing to the light—which, if pensive upstairs in the white-walled schoolroom, might, without exaggeration, be called quite dismally gloomy in the low-ceilinged dining-room looking out on the black mass of the ilex trees over a havoc of storm-beaten flower-beds—but Sir Charles struck her as so worn, so aged, so singularly and pathetically sad. He was still so evidently oppressed by anxiety concerning Damaris that, to hint at harsh action on his part, or plead Theresa's cause with convincing earnestness and warmth, became out of the question. Miss Verity hadn't the heart for it.

“Be true to your profession of good Samaritan, my dear Felicia,” he begged her with a certain rueful humour, “and take the poor foolish woman off my hands. Plant her where you like, so long as it is well out of my neighbourhood. She has made an egregious fiasco of her position here. As you love me, just remove her from my sight—let this land have rest and enjoy its Sabbaths in respect of her at least. I'll give you a cheque for her salary, something in excess of the actual amount if you like; for, heaven forbid, you should be out of pocket yourself as a consequence of your good offices.—Now let us, please, talk of some less unprofitable subject.”

Brightly, sweetly eager, Miss Verity hastened to obey, as she believed, his concluding request.

“Ah! yes,” she said, “that reminds me of something about which I do so want you to enlighten me.—This young Captain Faircloth, who so opportunely appeared on the scene and rescued darling Damaris, I believe I met him this morning, as I walked up from the front gate. I wondered who he was. His appearance interested me, so did his voice. It struck me as being so quaintly like some voice I know quite well—and I stupidly cannot remember whose.”

The coffee-cups chattered upon the silver tray as Hordle handed it to Miss Verity.

“You spoke to him then?” Sir Charles presently said.

“Oh! just in passing, you know, about the weather—which was phenomenally bad, raining and blowing too wildly at the moment. I supposed you had seen him. He seemed to be coming away from the house.”

Charles Verity turned sideways to the table, bending down a little over the tray as he helped him. The coffee splashed over into the saucer; yet it was not the hand holding the coffee-pot, but those holding the tray that shook. Whereupon Charles Verity glanced up into the manservant's face, calmly arrogant.

“Pray be careful, Hordle,” he said. And then—“Is Miss Verity right in supposing Captain Faircloth called here this morning?”

“I beg your pardon, Sir Charles. Yes, Sir Charles, he did.”

“What did he want?”

“He came to enquire after Miss Damaris, Sir Charles. I understood him to say he was going away to sea shortly.”

“Did he ask for me?”

“No, Sir Charles,” rather hurriedly; and later, with visible effort to recapture the perfection of well-trained nullity.—“He only asked after Miss Damaris.”

“When he calls again, let me know. Miss Damaris wishes to see him if she is sufficiently well to do so.”

“Very good, Sir Charles.”

And during this conversation, Felicia felt keenly distressed and perplexed. It made her miserable to think evil of anyone—particularly an old and trusted servant. But from the moment of her arrival Hordle's manner had seemed so very strange. Of course it was horrid even to suspect such a thing; but was it possible that he over-indulged sometimes, that he, in plain English, drank? Poor dear Charles—if he knew it, what an additional worry! It really was too deplorable.—Anyway she could alleviate his worries to a certain extent by carrying Theresa off. She would do so at once.—Was there an evening train from Stourmouth, which stopped at Paulton Halt? Well—if there wasn't she must get out at Marychurch, and drive from there. She only trusted she would be in time to dress for dinner. Harriet was such a stickler for etiquette.

From all which it may be deduced that the confessions, made to Miss Verity to-day, had this in common with those habitually heard by her—that the point of the story had been rather carefully left out.

CHAPTER XI. IN WHICH DAMARIS RECEIVES INFORMATION OF THE LOST SHOES AND STOCKINGS—ASSUMPTION OF THE GOD-HEAD

As Darcy Faircloth prophesied, the wild weather lasted throughout that week. Then, the rain having rained itself out, the wind backed and the skies cleared. But all to a different mode and rhythm. A cold white sun shone out of a cold blue sky, diapered, to the north above the indigo and umber moorland and forest, with perspectives of tenuous silken-white cloud. Land and sky were alike washed clean, to a starkness and nakedness calling for warm clothing out of doors, and well-stoked fires within.

At the beginning of the next week, invited by that thin glinting sunshine—beneath which the sea still ran high, in long, hollow-backed waves, brokenly foam-capped and swirling—Damaris came forth from her retreat, sufficiently convalescent to take up the ordinary routine of life again. But this, also, to a changed mode and rhythm, having its source in causes more recondite and subtle than any matter of fair or foul weather.

To begin with she had, in the past week, crossed a certain bridge there is no going back over for whoso, of her sex, is handicapped or favoured—in mid-nineteenth century the handicap rather than the favour counted even more heavily than it does to-day, though even to-day, as some of us know to our cost, it still counts not a little!—by possession of rarer intelligence, more lively moral and spiritual perceptions, than those possessed by the great average of her countrymen or countrywomen. Damaris' crossing of that bridge—to carry on the figure—affected her thought of, and relation to everyone and everything with which she now came in contact. She had crossed other bridges on her eighteen years' journey from infancy upwards; but, compared with this last, they had been but airy fantastic structures, fashioned of hardly more substantial stuff than dreams are made of.—Thus, anyhow, it appeared to her as she lay resting in her pink-and-white curtained bed, watching the loose rose-sprays tremble against the rain-spattered window-panes.—For this last bridge was built of the living stones of fact, of deeds actually done; and, just because it was so built, for one of her perceptions and temperament, no recrossing of it could be possible.

So much to begin with.—To go on with, even before Dr. McCabe granted her permission to emerge from retirement, all manner of practical matters claimed her attention; and that not unwholesomely, as it proved in the sequel. For with the incontinent vanishing of Theresa Bilson into space, or,—more accurately—into the very comfortable lodgings provided for her by Miss Verity in Stourmouth, the mantle of the ex-governess-companion's domestic responsibilities automatically descended upon her ex-pupil. The said vanishing was reported to Damaris by Mary, on the day subsequent to its occurrence, not without signs of hardly repressed jubilation. For “Egypt,” in this case represented by the Deadham Hard servants' hall, was unfeignedly “glad at her departing.”

“A good riddance, I call it—and we all know the rest of that saying,” Mrs. Cooper remarked to an audience of Hordle and Mary Fisher, reinforced by the Napoleonic Patch and his wife—who happened to have looked in from the stables after supper—some freedom of speech being permissible, thanks to the under-servants' relegation to the kitchen.

“I never could see she was any class myself. But the airs and graces she'd give herself! You'll never persuade me she wasn't sweet on the master. That was at the back of all her dressings up, and flouncings and fidgetings. The impidence of it!—You may well say so, Mrs. Patch. But the conceit of some people passes understanding. To be Lady Verity, if you please, that was what she was after. To my dying day I shall believe it. Don't tell me!”

Mary's announcement of the event was couched in sober terms, shorn of such fine flowers of suggestion and comment. Yet it breathed an unmistakable satisfaction, which, to Damaris' contrition, found instant echo in her own heart. She ought, she knew, to feel distressed at poor Theresa's vanishing—only she didn't and couldn't. As an inherent consequence of the afore-chronicled bridge-crossing, Theresa was more than ever out of the picture. To listen to her chatterings, to evade her questionings would, under existing circumstances, amount to a daily trial from which the young girl felt thankful to escape. For Damaris entertained a conviction the circumstances in question would call for fortitude and resource of an order unknown, alike in their sternness and their liberality of idea, to Theresa's narrowly High Anglican and academic standards of thought and conduct. She therefore ascertained from her informant that Miss Verity had been as actively instrumental in the vanishing—had, to be explicit, taken “Miss Bilson, and all her luggage (such a collection!) except two disgraceful old tin boxes which were to be forwarded by the carrier, away with her in her own Marychurch fly.”—And at this Damaris left the business willingly enough, secure that if tender-hearted Aunt Felicia was party to the removal, it would very surely be effected with due regard to appearances and as slight damage to “feelings” as could well be.

Later Sir Charles referred briefly to the subject, adding:

“When you require another lady-in-waiting we will choose her ourselves, I think, rather than accept a nominee of my sister Felicia's. She is certain to have some more or less unsuitable and incapable person on hand, upon whom she ardently desires to confer benefits.”

“But must I have another lady-in-waiting?” Damaris meaningly and pleadingly asked.

Charles Verity drew his hand down slowly over his flowing moustache, and smiled at her in tender amusement, as she sat up in a much lace and ribbon befrilled jacket, her hair hanging down in a heavy plait on either side the white column of her warmly white throat. Her face was refined to a transparency of colouring, even as it seemed of texture, from confinement to the house and from lassitude following upon fever, which, while he recognized its loveliness, caused him a pretty sharp pang. Still she looked content, as he told himself. Her glance was frank and calm, without suggestion of lurking anxiety.

Nor was she unoccupied and brooding—witness the counterpane strewn with books, with balls of wool, a sock in leisurely process of knitting, and, in a hollow of it, Mustapha, the brindled cat, luxuriously sleeping curled round against her feet.

“Heaven knows I've no special craving your lady-in-waiting should find a speedy successor,” he said. “But to do without one altogether might appear a rather daring experiment. Your aunts would be loud in protest.”

“What matters isn't the aunts, is it, but ourselves?” Damaris quite gaily took him up.

“But wouldn't you be lonely, my dear, and would you not find it burdensome to run the house yourself?”

“No—no,” she cried. “Not one bit. Anyway let me try, Commissioner Sahib. Let us be by ourselves together—beautifully by ourselves, for a time at least.”

“So be it then,” Charles Verity said.

And perhaps, although hardly acknowledged, in the mind of each the same consideration operated. For there remained a thing still to be done before the new order could be reckoned as fully initiated, still more fully established,—a thing which, as each knew, could be best done without witnesses; a thing which both intended should very surely be done, yet concerning which neither proposed to speak until the hour of accomplishment actually struck.

That hour, in point of fact, struck sooner than Damaris anticipated, the sound and sight of it reaching her without prelude or opportunity of preparation. For early in the afternoon of the second day she spent downstairs, as, sitting at the writing table in the long drawing-room, she raised her eyes from contemplation of the house-keeping books spread out before her, she saw her father walking slowly up from the sea-wall across the lawn. And seeing him, for the moment, her mind carried back to that miracle of interchangeable personalities so distressingly haunting her at the beginning of her illness, when James Colthurst's charcoal sketch of her father played cruel juggler's tricks upon her. For beside him now walked a man so strangely resembling him in height, in bearing and in build that, but for the difference of clothing and the bearded face, it might be himself had the clock of his life been set back by thirty years.

Damaris' first instinct was of flight. Just as when, out on the Bar with her cousin, Tom Verity, now nearly a month ago, overcome by a foreboding of far-reaching danger she had—to the subsequent bitter wounding of her self-respect and pride—shown the white feather, ignominiously turned tail and run away, was she tempted to run away now.

For it seemed too much. It came too close, laying rough hands not only upon the deepest of her love and reverence for her father, but upon that still mysterious depth of her own nature, namely her apprehension of passion and of sex. A sacred shame, an awe as at the commission of some covert act of impiety, overcame her as she looked at the two men walking, side by side, across the moist vividly green carpet of turf in the chill white sunshine, the plain of an uneasy grey sea behind them. She wanted to hide herself, to close eyes and ears against further knowledge. Yes—it came too close; and at the same time made her feel, as never before, isolated and desolate—as though a great gulf yawned between her and what she had always counted pre-eminently her own, most securely her property because most beloved.

She had spoken valiantly on Faircloth's behalf, had generously acted as his advocate; yet now, beholding him thus in open converse with her father, the wings of love were scorched by the flame of jealousy—not so much of the young man himself, as of a past which he stood for and in which she had no part. Therefore to run—yes, run and hide from further knowledge, further experience and revelation, to claim the privileges, since she was called on to endure the smart, of isolation.—Yet to run, as she almost directly began to reason, was not only cowardly but useless. Fact remains fact, and if she refused to accept it, range herself in line with it to-day, she in nowise negatived but merely postponed the event. If not to-day, then to-morrow she was bound to empty the cup. And she laughed at the specious half-truth which had appeared so splendid and exhilarating a discovery—the half-truth that nothing is really inevitable unless you yourself will it to be so. For this was inevitable, sooner or later unescapable, fight against it, fly from it as she might.

Therefore she must stay, whether she liked it or not—stay, because to do otherwise was purposeless, because she couldn't help herself, because there was nowhere to run to, in short—

She heard footsteps upon the flags outside the garden door, speech, calm and restrained, of which she could not distinguish the import. Mechanically Damaris gathered the scattered house-keeping books lying before her upon the table—baker's, butcher's, grocer's, corn-chandler's, coal-merchant's—into a tight little heap; and, folding her hands on the top of them, prayed simply, almost wordlessly, for courage to hold the balance even, to seek not her own good but the good of those two others, to do right. Then she waited.

The door opened, closed, and, after a minute's pause, one of the two men—Damaris did not know which, she could not bring herself to look—coming from between the stumpy pillars walked towards her down the half-length of the room; and bent over her, resting one hand on the back of her chair, the other on the leather inlay of the writing-table just beside the little pile of house-books.

The hand was young, sunburnt, well-shaped, the finger nails well kept. Across the back of it a small-bodied, wide-winged sea-bird, in apparent act of flight, and the letters D.V.F. were tattooed in blue and crimson. A gold bangle, the surface of it dented in places and engraved with Japanese characters, encircled the fine lean wrist. These Damaris saw, and they worked upon her strangely, awakening an emotion of almost painful tenderness, as at sight of decorations pathetically fond, playfully child-like and ingenuous. While, as he bent over her, she also became aware of a freshness, a salt sweetness as of the ocean and the great vacant spaces where all the winds of the world blow keen and free.

“Sir Charles wrote to me,” Faircloth said a little huskily. “He told me I might come and see you again and talk to you, and bid you good-bye before I go to sea. And I should have been here sooner, but that I was away at Southampton Docks, and the letter only reached me this morning. I telegraphed and started on at once. And he—Sir Charles—walked out over the warren to meet me, and brought me up here right to the door. And on the way we talked a little,—if he chose he could make the very stones speak, I think—and he said one or two things for which—I—well—I thank first Almighty God, and next to God, you—Damaris”—

This last imperatively.

“You did ask for me? You did wish to have me come to you?”

“Yes, I did wish it,” she answered. “But I never knew how much until now, when he has brought you. For that is the right, the beautiful, safe way of having you come to me and to this house.”

Yet, as she spoke, she lightly laid her hand over the tattooed image of the flying sea-bird, concealing it, for it moved her to the point of active suffering in its quaint prettiness fixed thus indelibly up in the warm live flesh.

At the touch of her hand Faircloth drew in his breath sharply, seeming to wince. Then, at last, Damaris looked up at him, her eyes full of questioning and startled concern.

“I didn't hurt you?” she asked, a vague idea of suffering, attached to that fanciful stigmata, troubling her.

“Hurt me—good Lord, how could you, of all people, hurt me?” he gently laughed at her. “Unless you turned me down, gave me to understand that, on second thoughts, you didn't find me up to your requirements or some mean class devilry of that kind—of which, by the way, had I judged you capable, you may be sure I should have been uncommonly careful never to come near you again.—No, it isn't that you hurt me; but that you delight me a little overmuch, so that it isn't easy to keep quite level-headed. There's so much to hear and to tell, and such scanty time to hear or tell it in, worse luck.”

“You are obliged to go so soon?”

The flames of jealousy had effectually, it may be noted, died down in Damaris.

“Yes—we're taking on cargo for all we're worth. We are booked to sail by noon the day after to-morrow. I stretched a point in leaving at all, which won't put me in the best odour with my officers and crew, or—supposing they come to hear of it—with my owners either. I am giving my plain duty the slip; but, in this singular ease, it seemed to me, a greater duty stood back of and outweighed the plain obvious one—since it mounted to a reconstruction, a peace-making, ridding the souls of four persons of an ugly burden. I wanted the affair all settled up and straightened out before this, my maiden voyage, in command of a ship of my own. For me it is a great event, a great step forward. And, perhaps I'm over-superstitious—most men of my trade are supposed to be touched that way—but I admit I rather cling to the notion of this private peace-making, this straightening out of an ancient crookedness, as a thing of good augury, a favourable omen. As such—let alone other reasons”—and he looked down at Damaris with a fine and delicate admiration—“I desired it and, out of my heart, I prize it.—Do you see?”

“Yes—indeed a thing of good augury”—she affirmed.

Yet in speaking her lips shook. For, in truth, poor child, she was hard-pressed. This intimate intercourse, alike in its simple directness and its novelty, began to wear on her to the point of physical distress. She felt tremulous and faint. Not that Faircloth jarred upon or was distasteful to her. Far from that. His youth and health, the unspoiled vigour and force of him, captivated her imagination. Even the dash of roughness, the lapses from conventional forms of speech and manner she now and again observed in him, caught her fancy, heightening his attraction for her. Nor was she any longer tormented by a sense of isolation. For, as she recognized, he stole nothing away which heretofore belonged to her. Rather did he add his own by no means inconsiderable self to the sum of her possessions.—And in that last fact she probably touched the real crux, the real strain, of the present, to her disintegrating, situation. For in him, and in his relation to her, a wonderful and very precious gift was bestowed upon her, namely another human life to love and live for.—Bestowed on her, moreover, without asking or choice of her own, arbitrarily, through the claim of his and her common ancestry and the profound moral and spiritual obligations, the mysterious affinities, which a common ancestry creates.

Had she possessed this gift from childhood, had it taken its natural place in her experience through the linked and orderly progress of the years, it would have been wholly welcome, wholly profitable and sweet. But it was sprung upon her from the outside, quite astoundingly ready-made. It bore down on her, and at a double, foot, horse, and siege guns complete. Small discredit to her if she staggered under its onset, trembled and turned faint! For as she now perceived, it was exactly this relation of brother and sister of which she had some prescience, some dim intuition, from her first sight of Faircloth as he stood among the skeleton lobster-pots on board Timothy Proud's old boat. It was this call of a common blood which begot in her unreasoning panic, which she had run from and so wildly tried to escape. And yet it remained a gift of great price, a crown of gold; but oh! so very heavy—just at this moment anyhow—for her poor proud young head.

Lifting her hand off Faircloth's, she made a motion to rise. Change of attitude and place might bring her relief, serve to steady her nerves and restore her endangered composure! Brooding over the whole singular matter in the peace and security of her room upstairs, her course had appeared a comparatively easy one, granted reasonable courage and address. But the young man's bodily presence, as now close beside her, exercised an emotional influence quite unforeseen and unreckoned with. Under it her will wavered. She ceased to see her way clearly, to be sure of herself. She grew timid, bewildered, unready both of purpose and of speech.

Faircloth, meanwhile, being closely observant of her, was quick to detect her agitation. He drew aside her chair, and backed away, leaving her free to pass.

“I am afraid we have talked too long,” he said. “You're tired. I ought to have been more careful of you, remembered how ill you have been—and that partly through my doing too. So now, I had better bid you good-bye, I think, and leave you to rest.”

But Damaris, contriving to smile tremulous lips notwithstanding, shook her head. For, in lifting her hand from his, she caught sight of the tattooed blue-and-crimson sea-bird and the initials below it. And again her heart contracted with a spasm of tenderness; while those three letters, more fully arresting her attention, aroused in her a fascinated, half-shrinking curiosity. What did they mean? What could they stand for? She longed intensely to know—sure they were in some sort a symbol, a token, not without special significance for herself. But shyness and a quaint disposition, dating from her childhood, to pause and hover on the threshold of discovery, thus prolonging a period of entrancing, distracting suspense, withheld her. She dared not ask—in any case dared not ask just yet; and therefore took up his words in their literal application.

“Indeed, you haven't talked too long,” she assured him, as she went over to the tiger skin before the fire-place, and standing there looked down into the core of the burning logs. “We have only just begun to talk, so it isn't that which has tried me. But—if you won't misunderstand—pray don't—the thought of—of you, and of all that which lies between us, is still very new to me. I haven't quite found you, or myself in my relation to you, yet. Give me time, and indeed, I won't disappoint you.”

Faircloth, who had followed her, put his elbows on the mantelshelf, and sinking his head somewhat between his shoulders, stared down at the burning logs too.

“Ah! when you take that tone, I'm a little scared lest I should turn out to be the disappointment, the failure, in this high adventure of ours,” he said under his breath.

“So stay, please,” the young girl went on, touched by, yet ignoring, his interjected comment. “Let me get as accustomed as I can now, so that I may feel settled. That is the way to prevent my being tired—the way to rest me, because it will help to get all my thinkings about you into place.—Yes, please stay.—That is,” she added with a pretty touch of ceremony—“if you have time, and don't yourself wish to go.”

“I wish it! What, in heaven's name, could well be further from any wish of mine?” Faircloth broke out almost roughly, without raising his eyes. “Do you suppose when a man's gone thirsty many days, he is in haste to forego the first draught of pure water offered to him—and that after just putting his lips to the dear comfort of it?”

“Ah! you care too much,” Damaris cried, smitten by swift shrinking and dread.

Faircloth lifted his head and looked at her, his face keen, brilliant with a far from ignoble emotion.

“It is not, and never will be possible—so I fancy”—he said, “to care too much about you.”

And he fell into contemplation of the glowing logs again.

But Damaris, seeing his transfigured countenance, hearing his rejoinder, penetrated, moreover, by the conviction of his entire sincerity, felt the weight of a certain golden crown more than ever heavy upon her devoted young head. She stepped aside, groping with outstretched hands behind her until she found and held on to the arm of the big sofa stationed at right angles to the hearth. And she waited, morally taking breath, to slip presently on to the wide low seat of it and lean thankfully against its solidly cushioned back for support.

“Neither for you, or for my ship”—Faircloth went on, speaking, as it seemed, more to himself than to his now pale companion. “I dare couple you and her together, though she is no longer in the dew of her youth. Oh! I can't defend her looks, poor dear. She has seen service. Is only a battered, travel-weary old couple-of-thousand-ton cargo boat, which has hugged and nuzzled the foul-smelling quays of half the seaports of southern Europe and Asia. All the same—next to you—she's the best and finest thing life, up to now, has brought me, and I love her.—My affection for her, though,” he went on, “is safe to be transitory. She is safe to have rivals and successors in plenty—unless, of course, by some ugly turn of luck, she and I go to the bottom in company.”

Faircloth broke off. A little sound, a little gesture of protest and distress, making him straighten himself up and turn quickly, his eyes alight with enquiry and laughter.

“May I take that to mean I'm not quite alone in my caring,” he asked; “but that you, Damaris, care, perhaps, just a trifling amount too?”

He went across to the sofa, sat down sideways, laying his right arm along the back of it, and placing his left hand—inscribed with the fanciful device—over the girl's two hands clasped in her lap. The strong, lean fingers exercised a quiet, steady pressure, for a minute. After which he leaned back, no longer attempting to touch her, studiously indeed keeping his distance, while he said:

“The other affection is stable for ever—safe from all rivals or successors. That is another reason why I jumped at the chance Sir Charles's letter gave me of coming here to-day, and seeing you, with this room—as I hoped—in which so much of your time must be spent, for background. I wanted to stamp a picture of you upon my memory, burn it right into the very tissue of my brain, so that I shall always have it with me, wherever I go, and however rarely we meet.—Because, as I see it, we shall rarely meet. We ought to be clear on that point—leave no frayed edges. There is a bar between us, which for the sake of others, as well as for your sake, it is only right and decent I should respect, a wall of partition through which I shouldn't attempt to break.”

“I know—but it troubles me,” Damaris murmured. “It is sad.”

“Yes, of course, it is sad. But it's just the penalty that is bound to be paid, and which it is useless to ignore or lie to ourselves about.—So I shall never come, unless he—Sir Charles—sends for me as he did to-day, or unless you send. Only remember your picture will never leave me. I have it safe and sound”—Faircloth smiled at her.—“It will be with me just as actually and ineffaceably as this is with me.”

He patted the back of his left hand.

“Nothing, short of death, can rub either out. I have pretty thoroughly banked against that, you see. So you've only to send when, and if, you want me. I shall turn up—oh! never fear, I shall turn up.”

“And I shall send—we shall both send,” Damaris answered gravely, even a little brokenly.

The crown might be heavy; but she had strangely ceased to desire to be rid of it, beginning, indeed, to find its weight oddly satisfying, even, it may be asserted, trenching on the exquisite. And, with this altered attitude, a freedom of spirit, greater than she had enjoyed since the commencement of the whole astonishing episode, since before her cousin Tom Verity's visit in fact, came upon her. It lightened her heart. It dispelled her fatigue—which throughout the afternoon had been, probably, more of the moral than bodily sort. Her soul no longer beat its wings against iron bars, fluttered in the meshes of a net; but looked forth shy yet serene, accepting the position in which it found itself. For Faircloth inspired her with deepening faith. He needed no guiding, as she told herself; but was strong enough, as his words convincingly testified, clear-sighted and quick-witted enough, to play his part in the complicated drama without prompting. Hadn't he done just what she asked?—Stayed until, by operation of some quality in himself or—could it be?—simply through the mysterious draw of his and her brother and sisterhood, she had already grown accustomed, settled in her thought of him, untormented by the closeness of his presence and unabashed.

And having reached this vantage-point, discovering the weight of the crown dear now rather than irksome, Damaris permitted herself a closer observation of her companion than ever before. Impressions of his appearance she had received in plenty—but received them in flashes, confusing from their very vividness. Confusing, also, because each one of them was doubled by a haunting consciousness of his likeness to her father. The traits common to both men, rather than those individually characteristic of the younger, had been in evidence. And, in her present happier mood, Damaris also desired a picture to set in the storehouse of memory. But it must represent this brother of hers in and by himself, divorced, as far as might be, from that pursuing, and, to her, singularly agitating likeness.

Her design and her scrutiny were easier of prosecution that, during the last few minutes, Faircloth had retired into silence, and an attitude of abstraction. Sitting rather forward upon the sofa, his legs crossed, nursing one blue serge trousered knee with locked hands, his glance travelled thoughtfully over the quiet, low-toned room and its varied contents. Later, sought the window opposite, and ranged across the garden and terrace walk, with its incident of small ancient cannon, to the long ridge of the Bar—rising, bleached, wind-swept, and notably deserted under the colourless sunshine, beyond the dark waters of the tide river which raced tumultuously seaward in flood.

Seen thus in repose—and repose is a terrible tell-tale,—the lines of the young man's face and figure remained firm, gracefully angular and definite. No hint of slackness or sloppiness marred their effect. The same might be said of his clothes, which though of ordinary regulation colour and cut—plus neat black tie and stiff-fronted white shirt, collar, and wristbands—possessed style, and that farthest from the cheap or flashy. Only the gold bangle challenged Damaris' taste as touching on florid; but its existence she condoned in face of its wearer's hazardous and inherently romantic calling. For the sailor may, surely, be here and there permitted a turn and a flourish, justly denied to the safe entrenched landsman.

If outward aspects were thus calculated to engage her approval and agreeably fill in her projected picture, that which glimmered through them—divined by her rather than stated, all being necessarily more an affair of intuition than of knowledge—gave her pleasure of richer quality. High-tempered she unquestionably read him, arrogant and on occasion not inconceivably remorseless; but neither mean nor ungenerous, his energy unwasted, his mind untainted by self-indulgence. If he were capable of cruelty to others, he was at least equally capable of turning the knife on himself, cutting off or plucking out an offending member. This appealed to the heroic in her. While over her vision, as she thus considered him, hung the glamour of youth which, to youth, displays such royal enchantments—untrodden fields of hope and promise inviting the tread of eager feet, the rush of glorious goings forward towards conquests, towards wonders, well assured, yet to be. The personality of this man clearly admitted no denial, as little bragged as it apologized, since his candour matched his force of will.

Taking stock of him thus, from the corner of the sofa, imagination, intelligence, affections alike actively in play, Damaris' colour rose, her pulse quickened, and her great eyes grew wide, finely and softly gay.

Faircloth moved. Turned his head. Met her eyes, and looking into them his face blanched perceptibly under its couche of sunburn.

“Damaris,” he said, “Damaris, what has happened?—Stop though, you needn't tell me. I know. We've found one another—haven't we?—Found one another more in the silence than in the talking.—Queer, things should work that way! But it puts a seal on fact. For they couldn't so work unless the same stuff, the same inclination, were embedded right in the very innermost substance of both of us. You look rested. You look glad—bless you.—Isn't that so?”

“Yes,” she simply told him.

Faircloth set his elbows on his knees, his chin on his two hands, wrist against wrist, and his glance ranged out over the garden again, to the pale strip of the Bar spread between river and sea.

“Then I can go,” he said, “but not because I've tired you.”

“I shall never be tired any more from—from being with you.”

“I don't fancy you will. All the same I must go, because my time's up. My train leaves Marychurch at six, and I have to call at the Inn, to bid my mother good-bye, on my way to the station.”

Was the perfect harmony, the perfect adjustment of spirit to spirit a wee bit jarred, did a mist come up over the heavenly bright sky, Faircloth asked himself? And answered doggedly that, if it were so, he could not help it. For since, by all ruling of loyalty and dignity, the wall of partition was ordained to stand, wasn't it safer to remind both himself and Damaris, at times, of its presence? He must keep his feet on the floor, good God—keep them very squarely on the floor—for otherwise, wasn't it possible to conceive of their skirting the edge of unnamable abysses? In furtherance of that so necessary soberness of outlook he now went on speaking.

“But before I go, I want to hark back to a matter of quite ancient history—your lost shoes and stockings—for thereby hangs a tale.”

And he proceeded to tell her how, about a week ago, being caught by a wild flurry of rain in an outlying part of the island, behind the black cottages and Inn, he took shelter in a disused ruinous boat-house opening on the great reed-beds which here rim the shore. A melancholy, forsaken place, from which, at low tide, you can walk across the mud-flats to Lampit, with a pleasing chance of being sucked under by quicksands. Abram Sclanders' unhappy half-witted son haunted this boat-house, it seemed, storing his shrimping nets there, any other things as well, a venerable magpie's hoard of scraps and lumber; using it as a run-hole, too, when the other lads hunted and tormented him according to their healthy, brutal youthful way.

—A regular joss-house, he'd made of it. And set up in one corner, white and ghostly—making you stare a minute when you first came inside—a ship's figure-head, a three-foot odd Britannia, pudding-basin bosomed and eagle-featured, with castellated headgear, clasping a trident in her hand. She, as presiding deity and—

“In front of her,” Faircloth said, his chin still in his hands and eyes gazing away to the Bar—“earth and pebbles banked up into a flat-topped mound, upon which stood your shoes filled with sprays of hedge fruit and yellow button-chrysanthemums—stolen too, I suppose, from one of the gardens at Lampit. They grow freely there. Your silk stockings hung round her neck, a posy of flowers twisted into them.—When I came on this exhibition, I can't quite tell you how I felt. It raised Cain in me to think of that degraded, misbegotten creature pawing over and playing about with anything which had belonged to you. I was for making Sclanders, his father, bring him over and give him the thrashing of his life, right there before the proofs of his sins.”

“But you didn't,” Damaris cried. “You didn't. What do my shoes and stockings matter? I oughtn't to have left them on the shore. It was putting temptation in his way.”

Faircloth looked at her smiling.

“No I didn't, and for two reasons. One that I knew—even then—you would find excuses, plead for mercy, as you have just now. Another, those flowers. If I had found—well—what I might have found, oh! he should have had the stick or the dog-whip without stint. But one doesn't practise devil-worship with flowers. It seemed to me some craving after beauty was there, as if the poor germ of a soul groped out of the darkness towards what is fair and sweet. I dared not hound it back into the darkness, close down any dim aspiration after God it might have. So I left its pitiful joss-house inviolate, the moan of the wind and sighing of the great reed-beds making music for such strange rites of worship as have been, or may be, practised within. Any god is better than none—that's my creed, at least. And to defile any man's god—however trumpery—unless you're amazingly sure you've a better one to offer him in place of it is to sin against the Holy Ghost.”

Faircloth rose to his feet.

“Time's up”—he said. “I must go. Here is farewell to the most beautiful day of my life.—But see, Damaris”—

And he knelt down, in front of her.

“Leave your shoes and stockings cast away on the Bar and thereby open the door—for some people—on to the kingdom of heaven, if you like. But don't, don't, if you've the smallest mercy for my peace of mind ever wander about there again alone. I've a superstition against it. Something unhappy will come of it. It isn't right. It isn't safe. When—when I called you and you answered me through the mist, I had a horrible fear I was too late. You see I care—and the caring, after to-day, very certainly will not grow less. Take somebody, one of your women, always, with you. Promise me never to be out by yourself.”

Wondering, inexpressibly touched, Damaris put her hands on his shoulders. His hands sprang to cover them.

“Of course, I promise,” she said.

And, closing her eyes, put up her lips to be kissed.

Then the rattle of the glass door on to the garden as it shut. In the room a listening stillness, a great all-invading emptiness. Finally Hordle, with the tea-tray, and—

“Mrs. Cooper, if it isn't troubling you, Miss, would be glad to have the house-books to pay, as she's walking up the village after tea.”

CHAPTER XII. CONCERNING A SERMON WHICH NEVER WAS PREACHED AND OTHER MATTERS OF LOCAL INTEREST

Before passing on to more dignified matters, that period of nine days demands to be noted during which the inhabitants of Deadham, all very much agog, celebrated the wonder of Miss Bilson's indisputable disappearance and Damaris Verity's reported adventure.

Concerning the former, Dr. Horniblow, good man, took himself seriously to task, deploring his past action and debating his present duty.

“It is no use, Jane,” he lamented to his wife. The two had retired for the night, darkness and the bedclothes covering them. “I am very much worried about my share in the matter.”

“But, my dear James, you really are overscrupulous. What share had you?”

The clerical wife does not always see eye to eye with her spouse in respect of his female parishioners, more particularly, perhaps, the unmarried ones. Mrs. Horniblow loved, honoured, and—within reasonable limits—obeyed her James; but this neither prevented her being shrewd, nor knowing her James, after all, to be human. Remembrance of Theresa, heading the Deadham procession during the inspection of Harchester Cathedral, sandwiched in between him and the Dean, still rankled in her wifely bosom.

“I overpersuaded Miss Bilson to accompany us on the choir treat. I forgot she must not be regarded as an entirely free agent. She has shown interest in parish work and really proved very useful and obliging. Her acquaintance with architecture—the technical terms, too—is unusually accurate for a member of your sex.”

“Her business is teaching,” said the lady.

“And I can't but fear I have been instrumental in her loss of an excellent position.”

“If her learning is as remarkable as you consider it, she will doubtless soon secure another.”

“Ah! you're prejudiced, my love. One cannot but be struck, at times, by the harshness with which even women of high principle, like yourself, judge other women.”

“Possibly the highness of my principles may be accountable for my judgments—in some cases.”

“Argument is very unrestful,” the vicar remarked, turning over on his side.

“But there would be an end of conversation if I always agreed with you.”

“Tut—tut,” he murmured. Then with renewed plaintiveness—“I cannot make up my mind whether it is not my duty, my chivalrous duty, to seek an interview with Sir Charles Verity and explain—put the aspects of the case to him as I see them.”

“Call on him by all means. I'll go with you. We ought, in common civility, to enquire for Damaris after this illness of hers. But don't explain or attempt to enlarge on the case from your own point of view. Sir Charles will consider it an impertinence. It won't advantage Miss Bilson and will embroil you with the most important of your parishioners. The wisdom of the serpent is permitted, on occasion even recommended.”

“A most dangerous doctrine, Jane, most dangerous, save under authority.”

“What authority can be superior to that under which the recommendation was originally given?”

“My love, you become slightly profane.—I implore you don't argue—and at this hour! When a woman touches on exegesis, on theology ”—

“All I know upon those subjects you, dear, have taught me.”

“Ah! well—ah! well”—the good man returned, at once mollified and suspicious. For might not the compliment be regarded as something of a back-hander? “We can defer our decision till to-morrow. Perhaps we had better, as you propose, call together. I need not go straight to the point, but watch my opportunity and slip in a word edgeways.”

He audibly yawned—the hint, like the yawn, a broad one. The lady did not take it, however. So far she had held her own; more—had nicely secured her ends. But further communications trembled upon her tongue. The word is just—literally trembled, for they might cause anger, and James' anger—it happened rarely—she held in quite, to herself, uncomfortable respect.

“I fear there is a good deal of objectionable gossip going about the village just now,” she tentatively commenced.

“Then pray don't repeat it to me, my love”—another yawn and an irritable one. “Gossip as you know is abhorrent to me.”

“And to me—but one needs to be forearmed with the truth if one is to rebut it conclusively. Only upon such grounds should I think of mentioning this to you.”

She made a dash.

“James, have you by chance ever heard peculiar rumours about young Darcy Faircloth's parentage?”

“In mercy, Jane—what a question!—and from you! I am inexpressibly shocked.”

“So was I, when—I won't mention names—when such rumours were hinted to me. I assured the person with whom I was talking that I had never heard a word on the subject. But she said, 'One can't help having eyes.'“

“Or, some of you, noses for carrion.”

Here he gave her the advantage. She was not slow to make play with it.

“Now it is my turn to be shocked,” she said—“and not, I think, James, without good cause.”

“Yes, I apologize,” the excellent man answered immediately. “I apologize; but to have so foul a suggestion of parochial scandal let loose on me suddenly, flung in my teeth, as I may say—and by you! I was taken off my guard and expressed myself coarsely. Yes, Jane, I apologize.”

“Then I have you authority for contradicting these rumours?”

The Vicar of Deadham groaned in the darkness, and rustled under the bedclothes. His perplexity was great on being thus confronted by the time-honoured question as to how far, in the interests of public morality, it is justifiable for the private individual roundly to lie. Finally he banked on compromise, that permanently presiding genius of the Church of England 'as by law established.'

“You have me on the hip, my love,” he told his wife quite meekly.

But, as she began rather eagerly to speak, he stopped her.

“Let be, my dear Jane,” he bade her, “let be. I neither deny or confirm the rumours to which I imagine you allude. Silence is most becoming for us both. Continue to assure any persons, ill-advised and evil-minded enough to approach you—I trust they may prove but few—that you have never heard a word of this subject. You will never—I can confidently promise you—hear one from me.—I shall make it my duty to preach on the iniquity of back-biting, tale-bearing, scandal-mongering next Sunday, and put some to the blush, as I trust. St. Paul will furnish me with more than one text eminently apposite.—Let me think—let me see—hum—ah! yes.”

And he fell to quoting from the Pauline epistles in Greek—to the lively annoyance of his auditor, whose education, though solid did not include a knowledge of those languages vulgarly known as “dead.” She naturally sought means to round on him.

“Might you not compromise yourself rather by such a sermon, James?” she presently said.

“Compromise myself? Certainly not.—Pray, Jane, how?”

“By laying yourself open to the suspicion of a larger acquaintance with the origin of those rumours than you are willing to admit.”

The shaft went home.

“This is a mere attempt to draw me. You are disingenuous.”

“Nothing of the sort,” the lady declared. “My one object is to protect you from criticism. And preaching upon gossip must invite rather than allay interest, thus giving this particular gossip a new lease of life. The application would be too obvious. Clearly, James, it would be wiser to wait.”

“The serpent, again the serpent—and one I've warmed in my bosom, too”—Then aloud—“I will think it over, my love. Possibly your view may be the right one. It is worth consideration.—That must be sufficient. And now, Jane, I do implore you give over discussion and let us say good night.”

It may be registered as among the consequences of these nocturnal exercises, that Dr. Horniblow abstained from tickling the ears of his congregation, on the following Sunday, with a homily founded upon the sin tale-bearing; and that he duly called, next day, at The Hard accompanied by his wife.

The visit—not inconceivably to his inward thanksgiving—proved unfruitful of opportunity for excusing Miss Bilson, to her former employer, by accusing himself, Sir Charles Verity's courtesy being of an order calculated to discourage any approach to personal topics. Unfruitful, also, of enlightenment to Mrs. Horniblow respecting matters which—as the good lady ashamedly confessed to herself—although forbidden by her lord, still intrigued her while, of course, they most suitably shocked. For the life of her she could not help looking out for signs of disturbance and upheaval. But found none, unless—and that presented a conundrum difficult of solution—Damaris' pretty social readiness and grace in the reception of her guests might be, in some way, referable to lately reported events. That, and the fact the young girl was—as the saying is—“all eyes”—eyes calm, fathomless, reflective, which yet, when you happened to enter their sphere of vision, covered you with a new-born gentleness. Mrs. Horniblow caught herself growing lyrical—thinking of stars, of twin mountain lakes, the blue-purple of ocean. A girl in love is blessed with just such eyes—sometimes. Whereupon, remembering her own two girls, May and Doris—good as gold, bless them, yet, her shrewdness pronounced, when compared with Damaris, but homely pieces—the excellent woman sighed.

What did it all then amount to? Mrs. Horniblow's logic failed. “All eyes”—and very lovely ones at that—Damaris might be; yet her tranquillity and serenity appeared beyond question. Must thrilling mystery be voted no more than a mare's-nest?—Only, did not the fact remain that James had refused to commit himself either way, thereby naturally landing himself in affirmation up to the neck? She gave it up.

But, even in the giving up, could not resist probing just a little. The two gentlemen were out of earshot, standing near the glass door.—How James' black, bow-windowed figure and the fixed red in his clean-shaven, slightly pendulous cheeks, did show up to be sure, in the light!—Unprofitable gift of observation, for possession of which she so frequently had cause to reproach herself.—

“You still look a little run down and pale, my dear,” she said. “It isn't for me to advise, but wouldn't a change of air and scene be good, don't you think?”

Damaris assured her not—in any case not yet. Later, after Christmas, she and her father might very likely go abroad. But till then they had a full programme of guests.

“Colonel Carteret comes to us next week; and my aunt Felicia always likes to be here in November. She enjoys that month at the seaside, finding it, she says, so poetic.”

Damaris smiled, her eyes at once, and more than ever, eloquent and unfathomable.

“And I learned only this morning an old Anglo-Indian friend of ours, Mrs. Mackinder, whom I should be quite dreadfully sorry to miss, is spending the autumn at Stourmouth.”

Mrs. Horniblow permitted herself a dash.

“At Stourmouth—yes?” she ventured. “That reminds me. I hear—how far the information is correct I cannot pretend to say—that kind little person, Miss Bilson, has been there with Miss Verity this last week. I observed we had not met her in the village just lately. I hope you have good news of her. When is she expected back?”

Without hesitation or agitation came the counter-stroke.

“I don't know,” Damaris answered. “Her plans, I believe, are uncertain at present. You and Dr. Horniblow will stay to tea with us, won't you?”—this charmingly. “It will be here in a very few minutes—I can ring for it at once.”

And the lady laughed to herself, good-temperedly accepting the rebuff. For it was neatly delivered, and she could admire clever fencing even though she herself were pinked.—As to tea, she protested positive shame at prolonging her visit—for didn't it already amount rather to a “visitation?”—yet retained her seat with every appearance of satisfaction.—If the truth must be told, Mrs. Cooper's cakes were renowned throughout society at Deadham, as of the richest, the most melting in the mouth; and James—hence not improbably the tendency to abdominal protuberance—possessed an inordinate fondness for cakes. He had shown himself so docile in respect of projected inflammatory sermons, and of morning calls personally conducted by his wife, that the latter could not find it in her heart to ravish him away from these approaching very toothsome delights. Nay—let him stay and eat—for was not such staying good policy, she further reflected, advertising the fact she bore no shadow of malice towards her youthful hostess for that neatly delivered rebuff.

After this sort, therefore, was gossip, for the time being at all events, scotched if not actually killed. Parochial excitement flagged the sooner, no doubt, because, of the four persons chiefly responsible for its creation, two were invisible and the remaining two apparently quite unconscious of its ever having existed.—Mrs. Lesbia Faircloth, at the Inn, the Vicar's wife left out of the count.—If Sir Charles Verity and Damaris had hurried away, gossip would have run after them with liveliest yelpings. But this practise of masterly inactivity routed criticism. How far was it studied, cynical on the part of the father, or innocent upon that of the daughter, she could not tell one bit; but that practically it carried success along with it, she saw to be indubitable. “Face the music and the band stops playing”—so she put it to herself, as she walked down the drive to the front gate, her James—was he just a trifle crestfallen, good man?—strolling, umbrella in hand, beside her.

All subsequent outbreaks of gossip may be described as merely sporadic. They did not spread. As when, for instance, peppery little Dr. Cripps—still smarting under Dr. McCabe's introduction into preserves he had reckoned exclusively his own—advised himself to throw off a nasty word or so on the subject to Commander Battye and Captain Taylor, over strong waters and cigars in his surgery—tea, the ladies, and the card-table left to their own devices in the drawing-room meanwhile—one evening after a rubber of whist.

“Damn bad taste, I call it, in a newcomer like Cripps,” the sailor had remarked later to the soldier. “But if a man isn't a gentleman what can you expect?”—And with that, as among local persons of quality, the matter finally dropped.

Mrs. Doubleday and Butcher Cleave, to give an example from a lower social level, agreed, across the former's counter in the village shop, that—

“It is the duty of every true Christian to let bygones be bygones—and a downright flying in the face of Providence, as you may say, to do otherwise, when good customers, whose money you're sure of, are so scarce. For without The Hard and—to give everyone their due—without the Island also, where would trade have been in Deadham these ten years and more past? Mum's the word, take it from me,”—and each did take it from the other, with rich conviction of successfully making the best of both worlds, securing eternal treasure in Heaven while cornering excellent profits on earth.

William Jennifer had many comments to make in the matter, and with praiseworthy reticence concluded to make them mainly to himself. The majority of them, it is to be feared, were humorous to the point of being unsuited to print, but the refrain may pass—

“And to think if I hadn't happened to choose that particular day to take the little dorgs and the ferrets ratting, the 'ole bleesed howd'ye do might never have come to pass! Tidy sum, young master Darcy's in my debt, Lord succour him, for the rest of his nat'ral life!”

 
 
 

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