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The Gift by May Sinclair

I

He had not been near her for two months. It was barely five minutes' walk from his house in Bedford Square to her rooms in Montagu Street, and last year he used to go to see her every week. He did not need the reminder of her letter, for he had been acutely aware, through the term that separated them, of the date when he had last seen her. Still, he was not sure how much longer he might have kept away if it had not been for the note that told him in two lines that she had been ill, and that she had—at last—something to show him. He smiled at the childlike secrecy of the announcement. She had something to show him. Her illness, then, had not impaired her gift, her charming, inimitable gift.

If she had something to show him he would have to go to her.

He let his eyes rest a moment on her signature as if he saw it for the first time, as if it renewed for him the pleasing impression of her personality. After all, she was Freda Farrar, the only woman with a style and an imagination worth considering; and he—well, he was Wilton Caldecott.

He would go over and see her now. He had an hour to spare before dinner. It was her hour, between the lamplight and the clear April day, when he was always sure of finding her at home.

He found her sitting in her deep chair by the hearth, her long, slender back bent forward to the fire, her hands glowing like thin vessels for the flame. Her face was turned toward him as he came in. Its small childlike oval showed sharp and white under her heavy wreath of hair—the face of a delicate Virgin of the Annunciation, a Musa Dolorosa, a terrified dryad of the plane-trees (Freda's face had always inspired him with fantastic images); a dryad in exile, banished with her plane-tree to the undelightful town.

She did not conceal from him her joyous certainty that he would come. She made no comment on his absence. It was one of her many agreeable qualities that she never made comments, never put forth even the shyest and most shadowy claim. She took him up where she had left him, or, rather, where he had left her, and he gathered that she had filled the interval happily enough with the practice of her incomparable art.

The first thing she did now was to exhibit her latest acquisitions, her beautiful new reading-lamp, the two preposterous cushions that supported and obliterated her; while he saw (preposterous Freda, who had not a shilling beyond what the gift brought her) that she had on a new gown.

“I say,” he exclaimed, “I say, what next?”

And they looked at each other and laughed. He liked the spirit in which Freda now launched out into the strange ocean of expenditure. It showed how he had helped her. He was the only influence which could have helped a talent so obscure, so uncertain, so shy.

It was the obscurity, the uncertainty, the shyness of it that charmed him most. It was the shyness, the uncertainty, the obscurity in her that held him, made it difficult to remove himself when he sank into that deep chair by her fireside, and she became silent and turned from him her small brooding face. It was as if she guarded obstinately her secret, as if he waited, was compelled to wait, for the illuminating hour.

“It's finished,” she said, as if continuing some conversation they had had yesterday.

“Ah.” He found himself returning reluctantly from his quest.

She rose and unlocked the cabinet where her slender sheaves were garnered. He came and took from her a sheaf more slender than the rest.

“Am I to read it, here and now?”

“If you will.”

He sat down and read there and then. From time to time she let her eyes light on him, shyly at first, then rest, made quiet by his abstraction. She liked to look at him when he was not thinking of her. He was tall and straight and fair; his massive, clean-shaven face showed a virile ashen shade on lip and chin. He had keen, kind eyes, and a queer mouth with sweet curves and bitter corners.

He folded the manuscript and turned it in his hands. He looked from it to her with considering, caressing eyes. What she had written was a love-poem in the divinest, the simplest prose. Such a poem could only have been written by his listening virgin, his dreaming dryad. He was afraid to speak of it, to handle its frail, half-elemental, half-spiritual form.

“Has it justified my sending for you?”

It had. It justified her completely. It justified them both. It justified his having come to her, his remaining with her, dining with her, if indeed they did dine. She had always justified him, made his coming to see her the natural, inevitable thing.

They sat late over the fire. They had locked the manuscript in its drawer again, left it with relief.

They talked.

“How many years is it since I first saw you?”

“Three years,” she said, “and two months.”

“And two months. Do you remember how I found you, up there, under the roof, in that house in Charlotte Street?”

“Yes,” she said, “I remember.”

“You were curled up on that funny couch in the corner, with your back against the wall——”

“I was sitting on my feet to keep them warm.”

“I know. And you wore a white shawl——”

“No,” she entreated, “not a shawl.”

“A white something. It doesn't matter. I don't really remember anything but your small face, and your terrified eyes looking at me out of the corner, and your poor little cold hands.”

She wondered, did he remember her shabby gown, her fireless room, the queer couch that was her bed, the hunger and the nakedness of her surroundings?

“You sat,” she said, “on my trunk, the wooden one with the nails on it. It must have been so uncomfortable.”

He said nothing. Even now, when those things were only a remembrance, the pity of them made him dumb.

“And the next time you came,” said she, “you made a fire for me. Don't you remember?”

He remembered. He felt again that glow of self-congratulation which warmed him whenever he considered the comfort of her present state; or came into her room and found her accumulating, piece by piece, her innocent luxuries. Nobody but he had helped her. It was disagreeable to him to think that another man should have had a hand in it.

Yet there would be others. He had already revealed her to two or three.

“I wonder how you knew,” she said.

“How I knew what?”

“That I was worth while.”

He gave an inward start. She had made him suddenly aware that in those days he had not known it. He had had no idea what was in her. She had had nothing then “to show” him.

It was as if she were asking him, as if he were asking himself, what it was that had drawn him to her, when, in the beginning, it wasn't and couldn't have been the gift? Why had he followed her up when he might so easily have dropped her? He had found her, in the beginning, only because his old friend, Mrs. Dysart, had written to him (from a distance that left her personally irresponsible), and had asked him to look for her, to discover what had become of her, to see if there was anything that he could do. Mrs. Dysart had intimated that she hardly thought anything could be done; that there wasn't, you know, very much in her—very much, that is to say, that would interest Wilton Caldecott. They had been simply pitiful, the girl's poor first efforts, the things that, when he had screwed his courage to the point of asking for them, were all she had to show him.

“I was too bad for words, you know,” said she, tracking his thought.

“You were. You were.”

“There wasn't a gleam, a spark——”

“Not one.”

They laughed. The reminiscence of her “badness” seemed to inspire them both with a secret exultation. They drew together, uncovering, displaying to each other the cherished charm of it. Neither could say why the thought of it was so pleasing.

“And look at you now,” said Caldecott.

“Yes,” she cried, “look at me now. What was it, do you think, that made the difference?”

That he had never really known.

“Oh, well, I suppose you're stronger, you know; and things are different.”

“Things?” she repeated. Her lips parted and closed, as if she had been about to say something, and recalled it with a sharp indrawing of her breath.

“And so,” she said presently, “you think that was it?”

“It may have been. Anyhow, you mustn't go getting ill.”

“I don't think,” she said, “there's any need. But don't be frightened. It won't go away.”

“What won't?”

“The gift.”

They laughed again. It was their own name for it.

“I wasn't thinking of it. I was thinking of you.”

“It's the same thing,” said she. “No. It won't go. It can't go. I've got it fast.”

He rose. He looked down on her; he seemed to hesitate, to consider.

“I wonder,” he said, “if I might ask my friend, Miss Nethersole, to call on you? She's Mrs. Dysart's niece.”

She consented, and with a terse good night he left her.

She, too, wondered and considered. She knew that she would some day have to reckon with his life, with the world that knew him, with the women whom he knew.

II

Freda and Miss Nethersole had met several times before the remarkable conversation that made them suddenly intimate.

That she would have, sooner or later, some remarkable conversation with Miss Nethersole was an idea that had dawned upon Freda from the first. But until the hour struck for them their acquaintance had been distant.

It had the fascination of deep distance. Freda had not been sure that she desired to break the charm. It seemed somehow to hold her safe. From what danger she would have found it hard to say, when Miss Nethersole covered her with so large and soft a wing. Still, they had come no nearer to the friendship which the older woman had offered as the end of their approaches.

It was as if Miss Nethersole were also bound under the charm. When Freda allowed herself to meditate profoundly she divined that what drew them on and held them back was an uncertainty regarding Wilton Caldecott. Neither knew in what place the other really held him. The first day they met each had searched, secretly, the other's face for some betrayal of his whereabouts; each, it had seemed to Freda, had shrunk from finding what she looked for; shrunk even more from owning that there might be anything to find.

And he had hoped that she would “like Julia.”

If reticence were required of them, Freda felt that her poor little face could never rival the inimitable reserves, the secure distinction of Miss Nethersole's. There was nothing, so to speak, to take hold of in Julia's dark, attenuated elegance; nothing that betrayed itself anywhere, from the slender brilliance of her deep-lidded, silent eyes, to her small flat chin, falling sheer from the immobile lower lip. Miss Nethersole's features and her figure were worn away to the last expression of a purely social intention. Quite useless to look for any signs of Wilton Caldecott's occupation. Freda was convinced that, if the lady possessed any knowledge of him, she would keep it concealed about her to the end of time. She was aware of Miss Nethersole's significance as a woman of the larger world. It was wonderful to think that she held the clue to the social labyrinth, in which, to Freda's vision, their friend's life was lost. She knew what ways he went. She could follow all his turnings and windings there; perhaps she could track him to the heart of the maze; perhaps she herself was the heart of it, the very secret heart. She sat alone for him there, in the dear silent place where all the paths led. The very thickness and elaboration of the maze would make their peace. Freda's heart failed her before the intricacy of Miss Nethersole's knowledge of him, the security of her possession. Miss Nethersole was valuable to him for her own sake, it being evident that she had no “gift.”

It was her personal sufficiency, unsustained as she was by anything irrelevant, that made Julia so formidable.

She had never seemed more so to Freda than on this afternoon when they sat together among the adornments of her perfect drawing-room. Everything about Miss Nethersole was as delicate and finished as her own perfection. She was finely unconscious of all that Freda recognized in her. It seemed as if what she chiefly recognized in Freda was her gift. She had been superbly impersonal in her praise of it. It was the divine thing given to Freda, hers and yet not hers, so wonderful, compared with the small pale creature who manipulated it, that it could be discussed with perfect propriety apart from her.

And to-day Wilton Caldecott's name had risen again in the discussion, when Julia had the air of insisting more than ever on the gift. It was almost as if she narrowed Freda down to that, suggesting that it was the only thing that counted in her intimacy with their friend.

“Yes,” said Freda, “but the extraordinary thing is that I hadn't it when first he knew me.”

“He saw what was in you.”

“He said the other day he saw nothing. I was too bad for words.”

“Oh, I know all about that. He told me.”

“What did he tell you?”

“That you were like a funny little unfledged bird, trying to fly before its wing feathers were grown.”

“I hadn't any. I hadn't anything of my own. Everything I have I owe to him.”

“Don't say that. Why should you pluck off all your beautiful feathers to make a nest for his conceit?”

“Is he conceited?”

Freda said to herself, “After all, she doesn't count. She doesn't know him.”

Miss Nethersole smiled. “He's a male man, my dear. If you want him to have an even higher idea of your genius than he has already, tell him—tell him you owe it all to him.”

“Ah,” said Freda, “you don't know him.”

“I have known him,” said Miss Nethersole, “for fifteen years. I knew him before he married.”

She had proved incontestably the superiority of her knowledge. Freda felt as if Miss Nethersole were looking at her to see how she would take it. There was an appreciable moment in which she adjusted her mind to the suddenness of the revelation. Then she told herself that there was nothing in it that she had not reckoned with many times before. It left her relations with Wilton Caldecott where they were.

There was nothing in it that could change for her the unique and immaterial tie. She was even relieved by the certainty that it was not Julia Nethersole, then, after all. She had an idea that she would have grudged him to Julia Nethersole.

Julia was much too well-bred to show that she had the advantage. She took it for granted that Miss Farrar was also acquainted with the circumstances of Wilton Caldecott's marriage.

“That,” said she, “is what makes him so extraordinarily interesting.”

“His marriage”—Freda hesitated. She wondered if Miss Nethersole would really go into it.

“Some people's marriages are quite unilluminating. Wilton's, I always think, is the key to his character, sometimes to his conduct.”

Freda held her breath. She saw that Miss Nethersole was about to go in deep.

“He has suffered”—Miss Nethersole went on—“all his life, from an over-developed sense of honor. He could see honor in situations where you wouldn't have said there was the ghost of an obligation. His marriage was not an affair of the heart. It was an affair of honor. The woman—she's dead now—was in love with him.”

“Did you know her?”

“No. She was not the sort of person you do know. She was simply a pretty, underbred little governess. He met her—on the staircase, I imagine—in some house he was staying in, and, as I say, she was in love with him. She was a scheming little wretch, and she and her people made him believe that he had compromised her in some shadowy way. I suppose he had paid her a little ordinary attention—I don't know the details. Anyhow, he was so fantastically honorable that he married her.”

“Poor thing. It must have been awful for her, to be married in that way—for honor!”

“She didn't consider it awful in the least. She didn't mind what she was married for, so long as she was married. She was that sort. Do I bore you?”

“No. You interest me immensely.”

“Of course they were miserable. He couldn't make her happy. Wilton is, in his way, a rather spiritual person, and his wife was anything but. Marriage can be an awful revelation to a nice woman. Sometimes it's a shock to a nice man. Wilton never got over his shock. It left him with a morbid horror of the thing. That's what has prevented him from marrying again.”

Miss Nethersole drew a perceptible breath before going in deeper.

“I've heard people praising his faithfulness to his wife's memory. They little know. He was loyal enough to the poor woman while she lived, but he's giving her away now with a vengeance. Several very nice women would have been more than willing to marry him; but as soon as he knew it——”

“Knew it? How could he know it?”

“Well, the ladies were very transparent, some of them. And when they weren't there was always some kind person there to make them so. And when he saw through them—he was off. You could see the horror of it coming over him, and his poor terrified eyes protesting—'I'd do anything for you—anything, my dear girl, but that.'”

Julia paused, as if on the brink of something still profounder. Evidently she abhorred the plunge, while Freda shrank from the horrible exposure of the shallower waters.

“And those women,” said Julia, after meditation, “wondered why they lost their friend. They might have kept him if they'd only kept their heads.”

It was at this point that Freda felt that Julia was trying to drag her in with her.

“How awful,” said she, “to feel that you'd driven a man away!”

“It might be more awful,” said Julia, “for him to feel he had to go.”

“That's it,” said Freda. “Had he?”

“Well, if he was honorable, what else was there for him to do?”

“To stay by those women, and see them through—if he was honorable.”

“Oh—if they'd have been content with that. But you see, my dear, they all wanted to marry him.”

“If they did,” said Freda, “that shows that they didn't really care.”

“They cared too much, I'm afraid.”

“Oh, no. Not enough. If they'd cared enough they'd have got beyond that. However much they wanted it, they'd have given it up, rather than let him go.”

As she said it she felt a blessed sense of relief. The deeper they went the more the waters covered her.

“You'll never get a man,” said Julia, “to understand that. If he cares for a woman he won't be put off with anything short of marrying her. So he naturally supposes——”

Julia had now gone as deep as she could go.

“Yes,” said Freda. “It's in the things he naturally supposes that a man goes so wrong.”

“Is it?” Julia paused again. “I don't know whether you realize it, but you and I are the only women Mr. Caldecott ever goes to see. I dare say you were surprised when he told you about me. I was amazed when he told me about you. I've no doubt he made each of us think we were the one exception. You see, we are rather exceptional women, from his unhappy point of view. He knows that I understand him, and I'm sure he thinks that he understands you——”

“So he feels safe with me?”

“Gloriously safe. You are a genius, above all the little feminine stupidities that terrify him so. From you he expects nothing but the unexpected. You're outside all his rules. I'm so much inside them that he knows exactly what to expect. So he's safe with both of us. It's the betwixt-and-between people that he dreads.”

Julia rose up from the depths rosy and refreshed. Freda panted with a horrible exhaustion.

“I see,” she said. And presently she found that it was time for her to go.

III

The cool, bright air out of doors touched her like a reminding hand. She turned awkwardly into the street that led from Bedford Square to her own place. Wilton Caldecott and she had often walked along that street together. She felt like one called upon to play a new part on a familiar stage, where every object suggested insanely, irrelevantly, the older inspiration.

Not that her conversation with Julia, or, rather (she corrected herself) Julia's conversation with her, had altered anything. It had all been so natural, so unamazing, like a conversation between two persons in a dream. They had both seemed so ripe for their hour that, when it struck, it brought no sense of the unusual. Only when she lit her lamp in her room, and received the full shock of the old intimate reality, did it occur to her that it was, after all, for Julia Nethersole, a rather singular outpouring. The more she thought of it the more startling it seemed—Julia's flinging off of the reticence that had wrapped her round. Freda was specially appalled by the audacity with which Julia had dragged Wilton Caldecott's history into the light of day. Her own mind had always approached it shyly and tenderly, with a sort of feeling that, after all, perhaps she would rather not know. To Freda Julia seemed to have taken leave suddenly of her senses, to have abandoned all propriety. One did, at supreme moments, leave many things behind one; but Freda was not aware that any moment in their intercourse had yet counted as supreme.

Could Julia have meant anything by it? If so, what was it that she precisely meant? The beginning of their conversation provided no clue to its end. What possible connection could there be between her, Freda's gift, such as it was, and Wilton Caldecott's marriage?

But as she pieced together, painfully, the broken threads she saw that it did somehow hang together. She recalled that there had been something almost ominous in the insistence with which Julia had held her to her gift. Julia's manner had conveyed her disinclination to acknowledge Wilton's part in it, her refusal to regard him as indispensable in the case. She had implied, with the utmost possible delicacy, that it would be well for Freda if she could contrive to moderate her enthusiasm, to be a little less grateful; to cultivate, in a word, her independence.

It was then that she had gone down into her depths. And emerging, braced and bracing from the salt sea, she had landed Freda safe on the high ledge, where she was henceforth to stand solitary, guarding her gift.

It was, in short, a friendly warning to the younger woman to keep her head if she wished to keep their friend.

Freda remembered her first disgraceful fear of Julia, her feeling that Julia would presently take something—she hardly knew what—away from her. That came of letting her imagination play too freely round Wilton Caldecott's friend. What was there to alarm her in the candid Julia? Wasn't it as if Julia, in their curious conversation, had given herself up sublimely for Freda to look at and see for herself that there was nothing in her to be afraid of?

It was possible that Julia had seen things in her. Freda had a little thrill of discomfort at that thought; but she rallied from it bravely. What if Julia did see? She was not aware of anything that she was anxious to conceal from her. Least of all had she desired to hide her part in Wilton Caldecott. It was, if you came to think of it, the link between her and Julia, the ground of their acquaintance. She could not suspect Julia of any vulgar desire to take that away from her.

If there had been any lapse from high refinement it had been in her own little cry of “Ah, you don't know him,” into which poor Freda now felt that she had poured the very soul of passionate possession. But Julia had been perfect. She had in effect said: “I see—and you won't mind my seeing—that your friendship for Wilton Caldecott is your dearest and purest possession, as it's mine. I'm not ashamed to own it. And I'll show you how to keep it. Take care of the gift—the gift. It'll see you both through.” Julia had been fine. What else could she be? Of course she had seen; and she had sacrificed her reticence beautifully, because it was the only way. It was, said Freda to herself, what she would have done if she had been in Julia's place, and had seen.

Having reconstructed Julia, she unlocked the drawer that held the hidden treasure, the thing that he had said was so perfect, the last consummate manifestation of the gift. They had found between them the right word for it. It was only a gift, a thing that he had given her, that if he chose he could at any moment take away. What had come from her came only through him. She owned, with a sort of exultation, that there was nothing in the least creative in her. She had not one virile quality; only this receptivity of hers, infinitely plastic, infinitely tender. What lay in the lamplight under her caressing hand had been born of their friendship. It was their spiritual child.

She bowed her head and kissed it.

She said to herself: “It is not me, but his part in me that he loves. If I am true to it he will be true to me.”

As she raised her head her eyes were wet with tears. She looked round the room. Everything in it (but the thing that lay there under her hand) seemed suddenly to have lost its interest and its charm. Something had gone from it, something that had been living with her in secret for many days, that could not live with her now any more. It had dropped into the deep when Julia stripped herself (it now seemed to Freda) and took her shining, sacrificial plunge.

“What, after all,” said Freda, “has she taken from me? Nothing that I ever really had.”

IV

It was Sunday afternoon. Caldecott made a point of going to see Miss Nethersole on Sunday afternoons. He felt so safe with Julia.

This particular Sunday afternoon was their first since Julia had become acquainted with Miss Farrar. It was therefore inevitable that their talk should turn to her.

“Your friend is charming,” said Julia.

“Yes,” he said, “yes.” He seemed reluctant to acknowledge it. Julia made a note of the reluctance.

“You must be very proud of her.”

He challenged the assertion with a glance which questioned her right to make it. Julia saw that his mind was balancing itself on some fine and perilous edge, and that it was as yet unaware of its peril.

“Of course you're proud of her,” said she, in a voice that steadied him.

“Of course I am,” he agreed.

“Is it really true that she owes everything to you?”

“No,” he said, “it isn't in the least true.”

“She says so.”

“Oh, that's her pretty way of putting it.”

“She thinks it.”

“Not she. If she does it's because she's made that way. She's awfully nice, you know.”

“She's too nice—to be allowed to——”

“Well?”

“To throw herself away.”

“She isn't throwing herself away. She's found the one thing she can do, and she's doing it divinely. I never met a woman who was so sure of herself.”

“Oh, she's sure enough, poor child.”

“I say, you don't mean to tell me you don't believe in her? Not that it matters whether you do or not.”

“Thank you. I'm not talking about her genius, or whatever the thing is. I've no doubt it's everything you say. If she'd only keep to that—the one thing she can be sure of. Unless, of course, you've made her sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ah, if I only knew what you meant.”

“What I mean?”

“Yes, what you mean to do.”

He laughed. “I don't mean to 'do' anything at present.”

“Well, then——”

“Why, what do you suppose I ought to do?”

“I don't know that it's for me to say.”

“You may as well, while you're about it.”

“If I could only make you see——” She mentally drew back.

“Well? What do you want to make me see?”

“What you've done already to that unhappy woman.”

“Unhappy? She's considerably happier than she was when I first knew her.”

“That's it,” she said, “that's just it. Where are your eyes? Can't you see she's in love with you?”

He did not meet her advancing gaze.

“What makes you think so?” he said.

“The way she talks about you.”

He smiled. “You don't allow for picturesque exaggeration.”

“My dear, when a woman exaggerates to that extent it generally means one thing.”

“Not with her. She wouldn't do it if it meant that. She'd be afraid to let herself go. And she isn't afraid. She just piles it on because she's so sure of herself—so sure that she isn't what you say she is.”

“I don't say she knows she's in love with you. She doesn't know it.”

“Can you be in love without knowing it?”

“She could. If she knew it, do you think she'd have let me see it? And do you think I'd have given her away? I wouldn't now, only I know what you are, and she doesn't.”

“No, indeed. You're right enough there.”

They paused on that.

“You're quite sure,” she said, “that you can't——”

It was as if she probed him, delicately, on behalf of their tragic friend. She turned her eyes away as she did it, that she might not see him shrink.

“No,” he said. “Never again. Never again.”

She withdrew the pressure of the gentle finger that had given him pain. “I only thought—” she murmured.

“What did you think?”

“That it might be nice for both of you.”

“It wouldn't be nice for either of us. Not nice at all.”

“Well, then, I can only see one thing.”

“I know. You're going to say I must leave off seeing her?”

“No. I don't say that.”

“I do, though. If I were sure——”

“You may be sure of one thing. That she doesn't know what's the matter with her—yet. She mustn't know. If you do go and see her, you must be careful not to let her find out. I did my best to hide it, to cover it up, so that she shouldn't see.”

“Your suspicion?”

“What do you think we're made of? The truth—the truth.”

“If this is the truth, I mustn't, of course, go near her. But I know you're mistaken.”

“Have I ever been mistaken? Have I ever told you wrong?”

“Well, Julia, you're a very wise woman, and I'll admit that, when you've warned me off anybody, you've warned me for my good.”

She colored. “I'm not warning you 'off' anybody now. I've warned you before for your own sake. I'm warning you this time for hers.”

“I see. I see that, all right. But—you never saw a woman like her, did you? I wonder if you understand her.”

“I do understand her. You can't look at her and not see that she has a profound capacity for suffering.”

“I know.”

Of course he knew. Hadn't he called her the Musa Dolorosa?

“Just because,” said Julia, “she has imagination.”

He had said good-bye and was going; but at the doorway he turned to her again.

“No,” he said, “you're wrong, Julia. She's not like that.”

Julia arched her brows over eyes tender with compassion—compassion for his infinite stupidity.

“Oh, my dear!” she cried, and waved him away as a creature hopeless, impossible to help.

He closed the door and stood with his back to it, facing her.

“Well,” he said, “you may be right; but before I do anything I must be sure.”

“How do you propose to make sure?”

“I shall go and see her.”

“Of course,” said Julia, “you'll go and see her.”

V

He went on to Montagu Street, so convinced was he that Julia was mistaken.

Freda knew well what she was going to say to him. She had chosen her path, the highest, the farthest from the abyss. Once there she could let herself go.

He himself led her there; he started her. He brought praises of the gift.

Other people, he said, were beginning to rave about it now.

“I wish they wouldn't,” said she. “It makes me feel so dishonest.”

“Dishonest?”

“As if I'd taken something that didn't belong to me. It doesn't belong to me.”

“What doesn't?”

“It—the gift! I feel as if it had never had anything—really—to do with me.”

“Ah, that's the way to tell that you've got it.”

“I know, but I don't mean that. I mean—it does belong so very much to somebody else, that I ought almost to give it back.”

He had always wondered how she did it. Now for one moment he believed that she was about to clear up her little mystery. She was going to tell him that she hadn't done it at all, that somebody else had borrowed her name for some incomprehensible purpose of concealment. She was going to make an end of Freda Farrar.

“Of course,” she said, “I know you don't want it back.”

“I?”

“Yes. It's really yours, you know. I should never have had it at all if it hadn't been for you.”

“I'm very glad,” he said gravely, “if I've helped you.”

He was thinking, “She does really rather pile it on.”

Freda went piling it on more. She felt continuously that the gift would see them through. She would hold it well before him, and turn it round and round, that he might see for himself that there was nothing that could be considered sinister behind it. Her passionate concentration on it would show that there was nothing behind, no vision of anything darker and deeper. It was as if she said to him, “I know the dreadful thing you're afraid of. I'm showing you what it is, so that you needn't think it's that.”

Not that she was afraid of his thinking it. She had set her happiness high, in a pure serene place, safe from the visitations of his terror. She conceived that the peace of it might in time come to constitute a kind of happiness for him. That gross fear could never arise between him and her. All the same, she perceived that a finer misgiving might menace his perfect peace. He might, if he were subtle enough, imagine that she was giving him too much, and that he owed her something. His chivalry might become uneasy. She must show him how perfectly satisfied she was. He must see that the thing she had hold of was great, was immense, that it filled her life to the brim, so that there wasn't any room for anything else. How could he owe her anything when he had given her that?

She must make him see it very clearly.

“It wasn't only that you helped,” she said, “to bring it out of me. It wasn't in me. When it came, it seemed to come from somewhere outside. Somebody must have put it into me. I believe such a thing is possible. And there wasn't anybody, you know, but you.”

“I doubt,” said he, “the possibility. Anyhow, you may safely leave me out of it.”

“Think,” she said, “think of the time when you were left out of it, when it was only me. It's inconceivable—the difference——”

“Let's leave it at that. Why rub the bloom off the mystery?”

“Do I rub the bloom off?”

“Yes, if you make out that I had anything to do with it.”

“If it's mystery you want, don't you see that's the greatest mystery of all—your having had to do with it?”

“But why should I, of all people? Is there any sign of Freda Farrar in anything I did before I knew her?”

“Is there any sign of her in anything she did before she knew you?”

He was silent.

“Then,” said Freda, “if it isn't you it's we. We've collaborated.”

If he had not been illumined by the horrid light Julia had given him he would have said that this was only Freda's way, another form of her adorable extravagance. Now he wondered.

Poor Freda went on piling up her defenses. “Don't you see?” said she. “That's why I feel so sure of it. If it had been just me, I should never have been sure a minute. It might have gone any day, and I should have known that there was no more where it came from. But, if it's you, I can simply lean back on it and rest. Don't you see?”

“No,” he said, “I don't see.”

(He was saying to himself: “I'm afraid Julia was right about her. Only she doesn't know it.”)

“You must leave me out of it. You mustn't let yourself think that you rest on anything or anybody but yourself.”

It was what Julia had said, searching her with her woman's eyes. He did not look at her as he said it.

Her nerves still shook under Julia's distant and delicate admonition to her to keep her head. It struck her that he was repeating the warning in a still more delicate and distant manner. She wondered was it possible that he was beginning to be afraid? Couldn't he see that he was safe with her? That they were safe with one another? What was she doing now but letting him see how safe they were? Hadn't she just given to their relations the last touch of spiritual completion? She had made a place for him where he could come and go at will, and rest without terror. Couldn't he see that she had set her house of life above all that, so high that nobody down here could see what went on up there, and wonder at his going out and coming in?

Keep her head, indeed! Her untroubled and untrammeled movements on her heights proved how admirably she kept it.

“You see,” he continued, “it's not as if I could be always here, on the spot.”

His voice still sounded the distant note of warning. It told her that there was something that he wished to make her see.

Her best answer to that was silence, and a sincere front intimating that she saw everything, and that there was nothing to touch her in the things he saw.

“And as it happens” (Caldecott's voice shook a little), “I'm going away next week. I shall be away a very long time.”

She knew that he did not look at her now lest he should see her wince. She did not wince.

“Well,” said she, “I shall be here when you come back.”

It was then that she saw the terror in his face.

“Of course,” he said, “I hope—very much—you will be here.”

She felt that he, like Julia, was leading her to the edge of the deep dividing place, and that he paused miserably where Julia had plunged. She saw him trying to bridge the gulf, to cover it, with decent, gentle commonplaces and courtesies. Then he went away.

What had she done to make him afraid of her? Or was it what she had said? The other day, before she had seen Julia, she could have said anything to him. Now it seemed there was nothing that she could say.

What was it that he had seen in her?

That was it. With all his wonderful comprehension he had failed her in the ultimate test—the ability to see what was in her. He had seen nothing but one thing, the thing he was accustomed to see, the material woman's passion to pursue, to make captive, to possess. He would go thinking all his life that it was she who had failed, she who, by her vulgarity, had made it impossible for him to remain her friend. She supposed she had piled it up too high. It was her very defenses that had betrayed her, made her more flagrant and exposed.

She bowed herself for hours to the scourging of that thought till the thought itself perished from exhaustion.

She knew that it was not so. He held her higher than that.

He was not afraid. He was only sorry for her. He had tried to be more tender to her than she was herself. He was going away because his honor, his masculine honor, told him that if he could not marry her there was nothing else for him to do. He was trying to spare her pain. It was very honorable of him, she knew.

But it would have been more honorable still if he had stayed; if he had trusted her to keep her friendship incorruptible by pain. Or rather, if he had seen that no pain could touch her, short of the consummate spiritual torture he was inflicting now.

There were moments when she stood back from the torture self-delivered. When she heard herself saying to him: “I know why you're going. It's because you think I wanted you to give me something that you can't give me. Don't you see that if you can't give it me it doesn't matter? It's, after all, so little compared with what you have given me. Is it honorable to take that away? Don't you see how you're breaking faith with me? Don't you see that you've made me ashamed, and that nothing can be worse to bear than that?”

Then she knew that she would never be able to say that to him. She would never be able to say anything to him any more. She wondered whether he had made those other women ashamed when he broke loose from them. Was she ashamed, did she suffer, the woman who had caught and held him, and hurt him so?

At the thought of his hurt her passion had such pity that it cried out in her, “What have they done to you that you can't see?”

VI

He went away the following week to the North, and remained there for six months. His honor prescribed a considerable term of absence. It compelled him to keep away from her for some time after his return. He told himself that she had the consolation of her gift.

Meanwhile no sign of it had reached him since the day he left her. Julia could give him no news of her; she believed, but was not certain, that Freda was away. When he called in Montagu Street he was told that Miss Farrar had given up her rooms and gone abroad.

He wrote to the address given him, and heard from her by return. She told him that she was very well; that San Remo was very beautiful; that she was sure he would be glad to hear that a small income had been left to her, enough to relieve her from the necessity of writing—she had not, in fact, written a line in the last year—otherwise, of course, he would have heard from her. “It rather looks,” she added, “as if poverty had been my inspiration.”

In every word he read her desire to spare him.

It had not stayed with her, then? The slender flame had died in her, the sudden spirit had fled. Well, if it had to go, it was better that it should go this way, all at once, rather than that they should have had to acknowledge any falling-off from the delicate perfection of her gift.

Three months later a letter from his friend, Mrs. Dysart, informed him of Freda's death at San Remo early in the spring.

Mrs. Dysart had seen her there. She was now staying with her niece, Julia Nethersole, and desired to see him. She was sure that he would want to hear about their friend.

He remembered Mrs. Dysart as a small, robust, iron-gray woman—sharp-tongued, warm-hearted, terrifically observant. Though childless, she had always struck him as almost savagely maternal. He dreaded the interview, for he had had some vague idea that she had not appreciated Freda. Besides, his connection with Miss Farrar was so public that Mrs. Dysart would have no delicacy in approaching it.

Mrs. Dysart proved more reticent than he had feared. The full flow of her reminiscences began only under pressure.

The news of Miss Farrar's death, she said, came to her as a shock, but hardly as a surprise.

“You were not with her, then?” he said.

“No one was with her.”

The words dropped into a terrible silence. A sound broke it, the sound of some uneasy movement made by Julia.

“When did you see her last?” he asked.

“I saw her last driving on the sea front at San Remo. If you could call it seeing her. She was all huddled up in furs and rugs and things. Just a sharp white slip of a face and two eyes gazing at nothing out of the carriage window. She looked as if something had scared her.”

And it was of her that he had been afraid!

“Do you know,” he said presently, “what she died of?”

“No. It was supposed that, some time or other, she must have had some great shock.”

Caldecott shifted his position.

“The doctors said there was no reason why she should have died. She could have lived well enough if she had wanted to. The terrible thing was that she didn't want. If you ask me what she died of I should say she was either scared to death or starved.”

“Surely,” he said, “surely she had enough?”

“Oh, she had food enough to eat, and clothes enough to cover her, and fire enough to warm her. But she starved.”

“What do you suppose,” said Julia, “the poor girl wanted?”

“Nothing, my dear, that you would understand.”

He was at a loss to account for the asperity of the little lady's tone; but he remembered that Julia had never been a favorite with her aunt.

“I'm convinced,” said Mrs. Dysart, “that woman died for want of something. Something that she'd got used to till it was absolutely necessary to her. Something, whatever it was, that had completely satisfied her. When she found herself without it, that, I imagine, constituted the shock. And she wasn't strong enough to stand it, that was all.”

Mrs. Dysart spoke to her niece, but he felt that there was something in her, fiery and indignant, that hurled itself across Julia at him.

He changed the subject.

“She—she left nothing?”

“Not a note, not a line.”

“Ah, well, what we have is beautiful enough for anybody.”

“I wonder if you have any idea what you might have had? If you even knew what it was you had?”

“I never presumed,” he said, “to understand her. I've hardly ever known any woman properly but one.”

“And knowing one woman—properly or improperly—won't help you to understand another. I never knew there was so much in her.”

“She didn't know it herself. She used to say it wasn't in her. It was the most mysterious thing I ever saw.”

It was his turn to shelter himself behind Freda's gift. He piled up words, and his mind cowered behind them, thinking no thought, seeing nothing but Freda's dead face with its shut eyes.

“What was it?” he said. “Where did it come from?”

“It came,” said Mrs. Dysart, “from somewhere deep down in her heart, a part of her that had only one chance to show itself.” She rose and delivered herself of all her fire. “There was something in Freda infinitely greater, infinitely more beautiful, than her gift. It showed itself only once in her life. When it couldn't show itself any more the gift left her. We can't account for it.”

He followed her to the door. She pressed his hand as she said good-bye to him, and he saw that there were tears in her eyes.

“I told you,” she said, “to do all you could for her. She knew that you had done—all you could.”

He bowed his head to her rebuke.

VII

Upstairs Julia was waiting for him. Her pale face turned to him as he came in.

He saw a hunger in it that was not of the soul.

He had never been greatly interested in Julia's soul, and till now her face had told him nothing of it. It had clipped it tight, like the covers of a narrow book. He had never cared to open it. Freda's soul was like an illuminated missal, treasured under transparence; its divine secret flamed, unafraid, in scarlet and gold.

He did not take his seat beside her, but stood off from her, distant and uneasy. She rose and laid her hand upon his arm, and he drew back from her touch.

“Wilton,” she said, “you are not going to let this trouble you?”

“What's the good of talking? It won't undo what we did.”

“What we did?”

“I, then.”

“What else could you do?”

He did not answer, and she murmured, “Or I? I was right. She was in love with you.”

He turned on her.

“I wish,” he said, “you had never told me.”