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The Kiss - Editor C. Arthur Pearson

 

The quiet of the deserted building incircled the little, glowing room as the velvet incircles the jewel in its case. Occasionally faint sounds came from the distance—the movements of cleaners at work, a raised voice, the slamming of a door.

The man sat at his desk, as he had sat through the busy day, but he had turned sideways in his seat, the better to regard the other occupant of the room.

She was not beautiful—had no need to be. Her call to him had been the saner call of mind to mind. That he desired, besides, the passing benediction of her hands, the fragrance of her corn-gold hair, the sight of her slenderness: this she had guessed and gloried in. Till now, he had touched her physical self neither in word nor deed. To-night, she knew, the barriers would be down; to-night they would kiss.

Her quiet eyes, held by his during the spell that had bound them speechless, did not flinch at the breaking of it.

"The Lord made the world and then He made this rotten old office," the man said quietly. "Into it He put you—and me. What, before that day, has gone to the making and marring of me, and the making and perfecting of you, is not to the point. It is enough that we have realised, heart, and soul, and body, that you are mine and I am yours."

"Yes," she said.

He fell silent again, his eyes on her hungrily. She felt them and longed for his touch. But there came only his voice.

"I want you. The first moment I saw you I wanted you. I thought then that, whatever the cost, I would have you. That was in the early days of our talks here—before you made it so courageously clear to me that it would never be possible for you to ignore my marriage and come to me. That is still so, isn't it?"

She moved slightly, like a dreamer in pain, as again she faced the creed she had hated through many a sleepless night.

"It is so," she agreed. "And because it is so, you are going away to-morrow."

"Yes."

They looked at each other across the foot or two of intervening space. It was a look to bridge death with. But even beneath their suffering, her eyes voiced the tremulous waiting of her lips.

At last he found words.

"You are the most wonderful woman in the world—the pluckiest, the most completely understanding; you have the widest charity. I suppose I ought to thank you for it all; I can't—that's not my way. I have always demanded of you, demanded enormously, and received my measure pressed down and running over. Now I am going to ask this last thing of you: will you, of your goodness, go away—upstairs, anywhere—and come back in ten minutes' time? By then I shall have cleared out."

She looked at him almost incredulously, lips parted. Suddenly she seemed a child.

"You—I——" she stammered. Then rising to her feet, with a superb simplicity: "But, you must kiss me before you go. You must! You—simply must."

For the space of a flaming moment it seemed that in one stride he would have crossed to her side, caught and held her.

"For God's sake——!" he muttered, in almost ludicrous fear of himself. Then, with a big effort, he regained his self-control.

"Listen," he said hoarsely. "I want to kiss you so much that I daren't even get to my feet. Do you understand what that means? Think of it, just for a moment, and then realise that I am not going to kiss you. And I have kissed many women in my time, too, and shall kiss more, no doubt."

"But it's not because of that——?"

"That I'm holding back? No. Neither is it because I funk the torture of kissing you once and letting you go. It's because I'm afraid—for you."

"For me?"

"Listen. You have unfolded your beliefs to me and, though I don't hold them—don't attempt to live up to your lights—the realisation of them has given me a reverence for you that you don't dream of. I have put you in a shrine and knelt to you; every time you have sat in that chair and talked with me, I have worshipped you."

"It would not alter—all that," the girl said faintly, "if you kissed me."

"I don't believe that; neither do you—no, you don't! In your heart of hearts you admit that a woman like you is not kissed for the first and last time by a man like me. Suppose I kissed you now? I should awaken something in you as yet half asleep. You're young and pulsing with life, and there are—thank Heaven!—few layers of that damnable young-girl shyness over you. The world would call you primitive, I suppose."

"But I don't——"

"Oh, Lord, you must see it's all or nothing! You surely understand that after I had left you you would not go against your morality, perhaps, but you would adjust it, in spite of yourself, to meet your desires! I cannot—safely—kiss you."

"But you are going away for good!"

"For good! Child, do you think my going will be your safeguard? If you wanted me so much that you came to think it was right and good to want me, wouldn't you find me, send for me, call for me? And I should come. God! I can see the look in your eyes now, when the want had been satisfied, and you could not drug your creed any more."

Her breath came in a long sigh. Then she tried to speak; tried again.

"It is so, isn't it?" he asked.

She nodded. Speech was too difficult. With the movement a strand of the corn-gold hair came tumbling down the side of her face.

"Then, that being the case," said the man, with infinite gentleness, his eyes on the little, tumbling lock, "I shall not attempt so much as to touch your hand before you leave the room."

At the door she turned.

"Tell me once again," she said. "You want to kiss me?"

He gripped the arms of his chair; from where she stood, she could see the veins standing out on his hands.

"I want to kiss you," he said fiercely. "I want to kiss you. If there were any way of cutting off to-morrow—all the to-morrows—with the danger they hold for us—I would kiss you. I would kiss you, and kiss you, and kiss you!"

II

Where her feet took her during the thousand, thousand years that was his going she could never afterwards say; but she found herself at last at the top of the great building, at an open window, leaning out, with the rain beating into her eyes.

Far below her the lights wavered and later she remembered that echoes of a far-off tumult had reached her as she sat. But her ears held only the memory of a man's footsteps—the eager tread that had never lingered so much as a second's space on its way to her; that had often stumbled slightly on the threshold of her presence; that she had heard and welcomed in her dreams; that would not come again.

The raindrops lay like tears upon her face.

She brushed them aside, and, rising, put up her hands to feel the wet lying heavy on her hair. The coldness of her limbs surprised her faintly. Downstairs she went again, the echoes mocking every step.

She closed the door of the room behind her and idly cleared a scrap of paper from a chair. Mechanically her hands went to the litter on his desk and she had straightened it all before she realised that there was no longer any need. To-morrow would bring a voice she did not know; would usher a stranger into her room to take her measure from behind a barrier of formality. For the rest there would be work, and food, and sleep.

These things would make life—life that had been love.

She put on her hat and coat. The room seemed smaller somehow and shabbier. The shaded lights that had invited, now merely irritated; the whimsical disorder of books and papers spoke only of an uncompleted task. Gone was the glamour and the promise and the good comradeship. He had taken them all. She faced to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow empty-handed—in her heart the memory of words that had seared and healed in a breath, and the dead dream of a kiss. Her throat ached with the pain of it.

And then suddenly she heard him coming back!

She stiffened. For one instant, mind and body, she was rigid with the sheer wonder of it. Then, as the atmosphere of the room surged back, tense with vitality, her mind leapt forward in welcome. He was coming back, coming back! The words hammered themselves out to the rhythm of the eager tread that never lingered so much as a second's space on its way to her, that stumbled slightly on the threshold of her presence.

By some queer, reflex twist of memory, her hands brushed imaginary raindrops from her face and strayed uncertainly to where the wet had lain on her hair.

The door opened and closed behind him.

"I've come back. I've come back to kiss you. Dear—dear!"

Her outflung hand checked him in his stride towards her. Words came stammering to her lips.

"Why—but—this isn't—I don't understand! All you said—it was true, surely? It was cruel of you to make me know it was true and then come back!"

"Let me kiss you—let me, let me!" He was overwhelming her, ignoring her resistance. "I must kiss you, I must kiss you." He said it again and again.

"No, no, you shan't—you can't play with me! You said you were afraid for me, and you made me afraid, too—of my weakness—of the danger—of my longing for you——"

"Let me kiss you! Yes, you shall let me; you shall let me." His arms held her, his face touched hers.

"Aren't you afraid any more? Has a miracle happened—may we kiss in spite of to-morrow?"

Inch by inch she was relaxing. All thought was slipping away into a great white light that held no to-morrows, nor any fear of them, nor of herself, nor of anything. The light crept to her feet, rose to her heart, her head. Through the radiance came his words.

"Yes, a miracle. Oh, my dear—my little child! I've come back to kiss you, little child."

"Kiss me, then," she said against his lips.

III

Hazily she was aware that he had released her; that she had raised her head; that against the rough tweed of his shoulder there lay a long, corn-gold hair.

She laughed shakily and her hand went up to remove it; but he caught her fingers and held them to his face. And with the movement and his look there came over her in a wave the shame of her surrender, a shame that was yet a glory, a diadem of pride. She turned blindly away.

"Please," she heard herself saying, "let me go now. I want to be alone. I want to—please don't tell me to-night. To-morrow——"

She was at the door, groping for the handle. Behind her she heard his voice; it was very tender.

"I shall always kneel to you—in your shrine."

Then she was outside, and the chilly passages were cooling her burning face. She had left him in the room behind her; and she knew he would wait there long enough to allow her to leave the building. Almost immediately, it seemed, she was downstairs in the hall, had reached the entrance.

She confronted a group of white-faced, silent men.

"Why, is anything the matter? What has happened? O'Dell?"

The porter stood forward. He cleared his throat twice, but for all that, his words were barely audible.

"Yes, Miss Carryll. Good-night, miss. You'd best be going on, miss, if you'll excuse——"

Behind O'Dell stood a policeman; behind him again, a grave-eyed man stooped to an unusual task. It arrested her attention like the flash of red danger.

"Why is the door of your room being locked, O'Dell?" She knew her curiosity was indecent, but some powerful premonition was stirring in her, and she could not pass on. "Has there been an accident? Who is in there?"

Then, almost under her feet, she saw a dark pool lying sluggishly against the tiles; nearer the door another—on the pavement outside another—and yet another. She gasped, drew back, felt horribly sick; and, as she turned, she caught O'Dell's muttered aside to the policeman.

"Young lady's 'is seccereterry—must be the last that seen 'im alive. All told, 'tain't more'n 'arf-an-'our since 'e left. 'Good-night, O'Dell,' sez 'e. 'Miss Carryll's still working—don't lock 'er in,' sez 'e. Would 'ave 'is joke. Must 'ave gone round the corner an' slap inter the car. Wish to God the amberlance——"

Her cry cut into his words as she flung herself forward. Her fingers wrenched at the key of the locked door and turned it, in spite of the detaining hands that seemed light as leaves upon her shoulder, and as easily shaken off. Unhearing, unheeding, she forced her way into the glare of electric light flooding the little room—beating down on to the table and its sheeted burden. Before she reached it, knowledge had dropped upon her like a mantle.

Her face was grey as the one from which she drew the merciful coverings, but her eyes went fearlessly to that which she sought.

Against the rough tweed of the shoulder lay a long, corn-gold hair.