She came ‘to meet John Lefolle’, but John Lefolle did not know he was to meet Winifred Glamorys. He did not even know he was himself the meeting-point of all the brilliant and beautiful persons, assembled in the publisher’s Saturday Salon, for although a youthful minor poet, he was modest and lovable. Perhaps his Oxford tutorship was sobering. At any rate his head remained unturned by his precocious fame, and to meet these other young men and women—his reverend seniors on the slopes of Parnassus—gave him more pleasure than the receipt of ‘royalties’. Not that his publisher afforded him much opportunity of contrasting the two pleasures. The profits of the Muse went to provide this room of old furniture and roses, this beautiful garden a-twinkle with Japanese lanterns, like gorgeous fire-flowers blossoming under the white crescent-moon of early June.
Winifred Glamorys was not literary herself. She was better than a poetess, she was a poem. The publisher always threw in a few realities, and some beautiful brainless creature would generally be found the nucleus of a crowd, while Clio in spectacles languished in a corner. Winifred Glamorys, however, was reputed to have a tongue that matched her eye; paralleling with whimsies and epigrams its freakish fires and witcheries, and, assuredly, flitting in her white gown through the dark balmy garden, she seemed the very spirit of moonlight, the subtle incarnation of night and roses.
When John Lefolle met her, Cecilia was with her, and the first conversation was triangular. Cecilia fired most of the shots; she was a bouncing, rattling beauty, chockful of confidence and high spirits, except when asked to do the one thing she could do—sing! Then she became—quite genuinely—a nervous, hesitant, pale little thing. However, the suppliant hostess bore her off, and presently her rich contralto notes passed through the garden, adding to its passion and mystery, and through the open French windows, John could see her standing against the wall near the piano, her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed, her creamy throat swelling in the very abandonment of artistic ecstasy.
‘What a charming creature!’ he exclaimed involuntarily.
‘That is what everybody thinks, except her husband,’ Winifred laughed.
‘Is he blind then?’ asked John with his cloistral naïveté.
‘Blind? No, love is blind. Marriage is never blind.’
The bitterness in her tone pierced John. He felt vaguely the passing of some icy current from unknown seas of experience. Cecilia’s voice soared out enchantingly.
‘Then, marriage must be deaf,’ he said, ‘or such music as that would charm it.’
She smiled sadly. Her smile was the tricksy play of moonlight among clouds of faëry.
‘You have never been married,’ she said simply.
‘Do you mean that you, too, are neglected?’ something impelled him to exclaim.
‘Worse,’ she murmured.
‘It is incredible!’ he cried. ‘You!’
‘Hush! My husband will hear you.’
Her warning whisper brought him into a delicious conspiracy with her. ‘Which is your husband?’ he whispered back.
‘There! Near the casement, standing gazing open-mouthed at Cecilia. He always opens his mouth when she sings. It is like two toys moved by the same wire.’
He looked at the tall, stalwart, ruddy-haired Anglo-Saxon. ‘Do you mean to say he—?’
‘I mean to say nothing.’
‘But you said—’
‘I said “worse”.’
‘Why, what can be worse?’
She put her hand over her face. ‘I am ashamed to tell you.’ How adorable was that half-divined blush!
‘But you must tell me everything.’ He scarcely knew how he had leapt into this role of confessor. He only felt they were ‘moved by the same wire’.
Her head drooped on her breast. ‘He—beats—me.’
‘What!’ John forgot to whisper. It was the greatest shock his recluse life had known, compact as it was of horror at the revelation, shamed confusion at her candour, and delicious pleasure in her confidence.
This fragile, exquisite creature under the rod of a brutal bully!
Once he had gone to a wedding reception, and among the serious presents some grinning Philistine drew his attention to an uncouth club—’a wife-beater’ he called it. The flippancy had jarred upon John terribly: this intrusive reminder of the customs of the slums. It grated like Billingsgate in a boudoir. Now that savage weapon recurred to him—for a lurid instant he saw Winifred’s husband wielding it. Oh, abomination of his sex! And did he stand there, in his immaculate evening dress, posing as an English gentleman? Even so might some gentleman burglar bear through a salon his imperturbable swallow-tail.
Beat a woman! Beat that essence of charm and purity, God’s best gift to man, redeeming him from his own grossness! Could such things be? John Lefolle would as soon have credited the French legend that English wives are sold in Smithfield. No! it could not be real that this flower-like figure was thrashed.
‘Do you mean to say—?’ he cried. The rapidity of her confidence alone made him feel it all of a dreamlike unreality.
‘Hush! Cecilia’s singing!’ she admonished him with an unexpected smile, as her fingers fell from her face.
‘Oh, you have been making fun of me.’ He was vastly relieved. ‘He beats you—at chess—or at lawn-tennis?’
‘Does one wear a high-necked dress to conceal the traces of chess, or lawn-tennis?’
He had not noticed her dress before, save for its spiritual whiteness. Susceptible though he was to beautiful shoulders, Winifred’s enchanting face had been sufficiently distracting. Now the thought of physical bruises gave him a second spasm of righteous horror. That delicate rose-leaf flesh abraded and lacerated!
‘The ruffian! Does he use a stick or a fist?’
‘Both! But as a rule he just takes me by the arms and shakes me like a terrier a rat. I’m all black and blue now.’
‘Poor butterfly!’ he murmured poetically.
‘Why did I tell you?’ she murmured back with subtler poetry.
The poet thrilled in every vein. ‘Love at first sight’, of which he had often read and often written, was then a reality! It could be as mutual, too, as Romeo’s and Juliet’s. But how awkward that Juliet should be married and her husband a Bill Sykes in broad-cloth!
Mrs. Glamorys herself gave ‘At Homes’, every Sunday afternoon, and so, on the morrow, after a sleepless night mitigated by perpended sonnets, the love-sick young tutor presented himself by invitation at the beautiful old house in Hampstead. He was enchanted to find his heart’s mistress set in an eighteenth-century frame of small-paned windows and of high oak-panelling, and at once began to image her dancing minuets and playing on virginals. Her husband was absent, but a broad band of velvet round Winifred’s neck was a painful reminder of his possibilities. Winifred, however, said it was only a touch of sore throat caught in the garden. Her eyes added that there was nothing in the pathological dictionary which she would not willingly have caught for the sake of those divine, if draughty moments; but that, alas! it was more than a mere bodily ailment she had caught there.
There were a great many visitors in the two delightfully quaint rooms, among whom he wandered disconsolate and admired, jealous of her scattered smiles, but presently he found himself seated by her side on a ‘cosy corner’ near the open folding-doors, with all the other guests huddled round a violinist in the inner room. How Winifred had managed it he did not know but she sat plausibly in the outer room, awaiting newcomers, and this particular niche was invisible, save to a determined eye. He took her unresisting hand—that dear, warm hand, with its begemmed artistic fingers, and held it in uneasy beatitude. How wonderful! She—the beautiful and adored hostess, of whose sweetness and charm he heard even her own guests murmur to one another—it was her actual flesh-and-blood hand that lay in his—thrillingly tangible. Oh, adventure beyond all merit, beyond all hoping!
But every now and then, the outer door facing them would open on some newcomer, and John had hastily to release her soft magnetic fingers and sit demure, and jealously overhear her effusive welcome to those innocent intruders, nor did his brow clear till she had shepherded them within the inner fold. Fortunately, the refreshments were in this section, so that once therein, few of the sheep strayed back, and the jiggling wail of the violin was succeeded by a shrill babble of tongues and the clatter of cups and spoons. ‘Get me an ice, please—strawberry,’ she ordered John during one of these forced intervals in manual flirtation; and when he had steered laboriously to and fro, he found a young actor beside her in his cosy corner, and his jealous fancy almost saw their hands dispart. He stood over them with a sickly smile, while Winifred ate her ice. When he returned from depositing the empty saucer, the player-fellow was gone, and in remorse for his mad suspicion he stooped and reverently lifted her fragrant finger-tips to his lips. The door behind his back opened abruptly.
‘Goodbye,’ she said, rising in a flash. The words had the calm conventional cadence, and instantly extorted from him—amid all his dazedness—the corresponding ‘Goodbye’. When he turned and saw it was Mr. Glamorys who had come in, his heart leapt wildly at the nearness of his escape. As he passed this masked ruffian, he nodded perfunctorily and received a cordial smile. Yes, he was handsome and fascinating enough externally, this blonde savage.
‘A man may smile and smile and be a villain,’ John thought. ‘I wonder how he’d feel, if he knew I knew he beats women.’
Already John had generalized the charge. ‘I hope Cecilia will keep him at arm’s length,’ he had said to Winifred, ‘if only that she may not smart for it some day.’
He lingered purposely in the hall to get an impression of the brute, who had begun talking loudly to a friend with irritating bursts of laughter, speciously frank-ringing. Golf, fishing, comic operas—ah, the Boeotian! These were the men who monopolized the ethereal divinities.
But this brusque separation from his particular divinity was disconcerting. How to see her again? He must go up to Oxford in the morning, he wrote her that night, but if she could possibly let him call during the week he would manage to run down again.
‘Oh, my dear, dreaming poet,’ she wrote to Oxford, ‘how could you possibly send me a letter to be laid on the breakfast-table beside The Times! With a poem in it, too. Fortunately my husband was in a hurry to get down to the City, and he neglected to read my correspondence. (The unchivalrous blackguard,’ John commented. ‘But what can be expected of a woman beater?’) Never, never write to me again at the house. A letter, care of Mrs. Best, 8A Foley Street, W.C., will always find me. She is my maid’s mother. And you must not come here either, my dear handsome head-in-the-clouds, except to my ‘At Homes’, and then only at judicious intervals. I shall be walking round the pond in Kensington Gardens at four next Wednesday, unless Mrs. Best brings me a letter to the contrary. And now thank you for your delicious poem; I do not recognize my humble self in the dainty lines, but I shall always be proud to think I inspired them. Will it be in the new volume? I have never been in print before; it will be a novel sensation. I cannot pay you song for song, only feeling for feeling. Oh, John Lefolle, why did we not meet when I had still my girlish dreams? Now, I have grown to distrust all men—to fear the brute beneath the cavalier….’
Mrs. Best did bring her a letter, but it was not to cancel the appointment, only to say he was not surprised at her horror of the male sex, but that she must beware of false generalizations. Life was still a wonderful and beautiful thing—vide poem enclosed. He was counting the minutes till Wednesday afternoon. It was surely a popular mistake that only sixty went to the hour.
This chronometrical reflection recurred to him even more poignantly in the hour that he circumambulated the pond in Kensington Gardens. Had she forgotten—had her husband locked her up? What could have happened? It seemed six hundred minutes, ere, at ten past five she came tripping daintily towards him. His brain had been reduced to insanely devising problems for his pupils—if a man walks two strides of one and a half feet a second round a lake fifty acres in area, in how many turns will he overtake a lady who walks half as fast and isn’t there?—but the moment her pink parasol loomed on the horizon, all his long misery vanished in an ineffable peace and uplifting. He hurried, bare-headed, to clasp her little gloved hand. He had forgotten her unpunctuality, nor did she remind him of it.
‘How sweet of you to come all that way,’ was all she said, and it was a sufficient reward for the hours in the train and the six hundred minutes among the nursemaids and perambulators. The elms were in their glory, the birds were singing briskly, the water sparkled, the sunlit sward stretched fresh and green—it was the loveliest, coolest moment of the afternoon. John instinctively turned down a leafy avenue. Nature and Love! What more could poet ask?
‘No, we can’t have tea by the Kiosk,’ Mrs. Glamorys protested. ‘Of course I love anything that savours of Paris, but it’s become so fashionable. There will be heaps of people who know me. I suppose you’ve forgotten it’s the height of the season. I know a quiet little place in the High Street.’ She led him, unresisting but bemused, towards the gate, and into a confectioner’s. Conversation languished on the way.
‘Tea,’ he was about to instruct the pretty attendant.
‘Strawberry ices,’ Mrs. Glamorys remarked gently. ‘And some of those nice French cakes.’
The ice restored his spirits, it was really delicious, and he had got so hot and tired, pacing round the pond. Decidedly Winifred was a practical person and he was a dreamer. The pastry he dared not touch—being a genius—but he was charmed at the gaiety with which Winifred crammed cake after cake into her rosebud of a mouth. What an enchanting creature! how bravely she covered up her life’s tragedy!
The thought made him glance at her velvet band—it was broader than ever.
‘He has beaten you again!’ he murmured furiously. Her joyous eyes saddened, she hung her head, and her fingers crumbled the cake. ‘What is his pretext?’ he asked, his blood burning.
‘Jealousy,’ she whispered.
His blood lost its glow, ran cold. He felt the bully’s blows on his own skin, his romance turning suddenly sordid. But he recovered his courage. He, too, had muscles. ‘But I thought he just missed seeing me kiss your hand.’
She opened her eyes wide. ‘It wasn’t you, you darling old dreamer.’
He was relieved and disturbed in one.
‘Somebody else?’ he murmured. Somehow the vision of the player-fellow came up.
She nodded. ‘Isn’t it lucky he has himself drawn a red-herring across the track? I didn’t mind his blows—you were safe!’ Then, with one of her adorable transitions, ‘I am dreaming of another ice,’ she cried with roguish wistfulness.
‘I was afraid to confess my own greediness,’ he said, laughing. He beckoned the waitress. ‘Two more.’
‘We haven’t got any more strawberries,’ was her unexpected reply. ‘There’s been such a run on them today.’
Winifred’s face grew overcast. ‘Oh, nonsense!’ she pouted. To John the moment seemed tragic.
‘Won’t you have another kind?’ he queried. He himself liked any kind, but he could scarcely eat a second ice without her.
Winifred meditated. ‘Coffee?’ she queried.
The waitress went away and returned with a face as gloomy as Winifred’s. ‘It’s been such a hot day,’ she said deprecatingly. ‘There is only one ice in the place and that’s Neapolitan.’
‘Well, bring two Neapolitans,’ John ventured.
‘I mean there is only one Neapolitan ice left.’
‘Well, bring that. I don’t really want one.’
He watched Mrs. Glamorys daintily devouring the solitary ice, and felt a certain pathos about the parti-coloured oblong, a something of the haunting sadness of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’. It would make a graceful, serio-comic triolet, he was thinking. But at the last spoonful, his beautiful companion dislocated his rhymes by her sudden upspringing.
‘Goodness gracious,’ she cried, ‘how late it is!’
‘Oh, you’re not leaving me yet!’ he said. A world of things sprang to his brain, things that he was going to say—to arrange. They had said nothing—not a word of their love even; nothing but cakes and ices.
‘Poet!’ she laughed. ‘Have you forgotten I live at Hampstead?’ She picked up her parasol.
‘Put me into a hansom, or my husband will be raving at his lonely dinner-table.’
He was so dazed as to be surprised when the waitress blocked his departure with a bill. When Winifred was spirited away, he remembered she might, without much risk, have given him a lift to Paddington. He hailed another hansom and caught the next train to Oxford. But he was too late for his own dinner in Hall.
He was kept very busy for the next few days, and could only exchange a passionate letter or two with her. For some time the examination fever had been raging, and in every college poor patients sat with wet towels round their heads. Some, who had neglected their tutor all the term, now strove to absorb his omniscience in a sitting.
On the Monday, John Lefolle was good-naturedly giving a special audience to a muscular dunce, trying to explain to him the political effects of the Crusades, when there was a knock at the sitting-room door, and the scout ushered in Mrs. Glamorys. She was bewitchingly dressed in white, and stood in the open doorway, smiling—an embodiment of the summer he was neglecting. He rose, but his tongue was paralysed. The dunce became suddenly important—a symbol of the decorum he had been outraging. His soul, torn so abruptly from history to romance, could not get up the right emotion. Why this imprudence of Winifred’s? She had been so careful heretofore.
‘What a lot of boots there are on your staircase!’ she said gaily.
He laughed. The spell was broken. ‘Yes, the heap to be cleaned is rather obtrusive,’ he said, ‘but I suppose it is a sort of tradition.’
‘I think I’ve got hold of the thing pretty well now, sir.’ The dunce rose and smiled, and his tutor realized how little the dunce had to learn in some things. He felt quite grateful to him.
‘Oh, well, you’ll come and see me again after lunch, won’t you, if one or two points occur to you for elucidation,’ he said, feeling vaguely a liar, and generally guilty. But when, on the departure of the dunce, Winifred held out her arms, everything fell from him but the sense of the exquisite moment. Their lips met for the first time, but only for an instant. He had scarcely time to realize that this wonderful thing had happened before the mobile creature had darted to his book-shelves and was examining a Thucydides upside down.
‘How clever to know Greek!’ she exclaimed. ‘And do you really talk it with the other dons?’
‘No, we never talk shop,’ he laughed. ‘But, Winifred, what made you come here?’
‘I had never seen Oxford. Isn’t it beautiful?’
‘There’s nothing beautiful here,’ he said, looking round his sober study.
‘No,’ she admitted; ‘there’s nothing I care for here,’ and had left another celestial kiss on his lips before he knew it. ‘And now you must take me to lunch and on the river.’
He stammered, ‘I have—work.’
She pouted. ‘But I can’t stay beyond tomorrow morning, and I want so much to see all your celebrated oarsmen practising.’
‘You are not staying over the night?’ he gasped.
‘Yes, I am,’ and she threw him a dazzling glance.
His heart went pit-a-pat. ‘Where?’ he murmured.
‘Oh, some poky little hotel near the station. The swell hotels are full.’
He was glad to hear she was not conspicuously quartered.
‘So many people have come down already for Commem,’ he said. ‘I suppose they are anxious to see the Generals get their degrees. But hadn’t we better go somewhere and lunch?’
They went down the stone staircase, past the battalion of boots, and across the quad. He felt that all the windows were alive with eyes, but she insisted on standing still and admiring their ivied picturesqueness. After lunch he shamefacedly borrowed the dunce’s punt. The necessities of punting, which kept him far from her, and demanded much adroit labour, gradually restored his self-respect, and he was able to look the uncelebrated oarsmen they met in the eyes, except when they were accompanied by their parents and sisters, which subtly made him feel uncomfortable again. But Winifred, piquant under her pink parasol, was singularly at ease, enraptured with the changing beauty of the river, applauding with childish glee the wild flowers on the banks, or the rippling reflections in the water.
‘Look, look!’ she cried once, pointing skyward. He stared upwards, expecting a balloon at least. But it was only ‘Keats’ little rosy cloud’, she explained. It was not her fault if he did not find the excursion unreservedly idyllic.
‘How stupid,’ she reflected, ‘to keep all those nice boys cooped up reading dead languages in a spot made for life and love.’
‘I’m afraid they don’t disturb the dead languages so much as you think,’ he reassured her, smiling. ‘And there will be plenty of love-making during Commem.’
‘I am so glad. I suppose there are lots of engagements that week.’
‘Oh, yes—but not one per cent come to anything.’
‘Really? Oh, how fickle men are!’
That seemed rather question-begging, but he was so thrilled by the implicit revelation that she could not even imagine feminine inconstancy, that he forebore to draw her attention to her inadequate logic.
So childish and thoughtless indeed was she that day that nothing would content her but attending a ‘Viva’, which he had incautiously informed her was public.
‘Nobody will notice us,’ she urged with strange unconsciousness of her loveliness. ‘Besides, they don’t know I’m not your sister.’
‘The Oxford intellect is sceptical,’ he said, laughing. ‘It cultivates philosophical doubt.’
But, putting a bold face on the matter, and assuming a fraternal air, he took her to the torture-chamber, in which candidates sat dolefully on a row of chairs against the wall, waiting their turn to come before the three grand inquisitors at the table. Fortunately, Winifred and he were the only spectators; but unfortunately they blundered in at the very moment when the poor owner of the punt was on the rack. The central inquisitor was trying to extract from him information about Becket, almost prompting him with the very words, but without penetrating through the duncical denseness. John Lefolle breathed more freely when the Crusades were broached; but, alas, it very soon became evident that the dunce had by no means ‘got hold of the thing’. As the dunce passed out sadly, obviously ploughed, John Lefolle suffered more than he. So conscience-stricken was he that, when he had accompanied Winifred as far as her hotel, he refused her invitation to come in, pleading the compulsoriness of duty and dinner in Hall. But he could not get away without promising to call in during the evening.
The prospect of this visit was with him all through dinner, at once tempting and terrifying. Assuredly there was a skeleton at his feast, as he sat at the high table, facing the Master. The venerable portraits round the Hall seemed to rebuke his romantic waywardness. In the common-room, he sipped his port uneasily, listening as in a daze to the discussion on Free Will, which an eminent stranger had stirred up. How academic it seemed, compared with the passionate realities of life. But somehow he found himself lingering on at the academic discussion, postponing the realities of life. Every now and again, he was impelled to glance at his watch; but suddenly murmuring, ‘It is very late,’ he pulled himself together, and took leave of his learned brethren. But in the street the sight of a telegraph office drew his steps to it, and almost mechanically he wrote out the message: ‘Regret detained. Will call early in morning.’
When he did call in the morning, he was told she had gone back to London the night before on receipt of a telegram. He turned away with a bitter pang of disappointment and regret.
Their subsequent correspondence was only the more amorous. The reason she had fled from the hotel, she explained, was that she could not endure the night in those stuffy quarters. He consoled himself with the hope of seeing much of her during the Long Vacation. He did see her once at her own reception, but this time her husband wandered about the two rooms. The cosy corner was impossible, and they could only manage to gasp out a few mutual endearments amid the buzz and movement, and to arrange a rendezvous for the end of July. When the day came, he received a heart-broken letter, stating that her husband had borne her away to Goodwood. In a postscript she informed him that ‘Quicksilver was a sure thing’. Much correspondence passed without another meeting being effected, and he lent her five pounds to pay a debt of honour incurred through her husband’s ‘absurd confidence in Quicksilver’. A week later this horsey husband of hers brought her on to Brighton for the races there, and hither John Lefolle flew. But her husband shadowed her, and he could only lift his hat to her as they passed each other on the Lawns. Sometimes he saw her sitting pensively on a chair while her lord and thrasher perused a pink sporting-paper. Such tantalizing proximity raised their correspondence through the Hove Post Office to fever heat. Life apart, they felt, was impossible, and, removed from the sobering influences of his cap and gown, John Lefolle dreamed of throwing everything to the winds. His literary reputation had opened out a new career. The Winifred lyrics alone had brought in a tidy sum, and though he had expended that and more on despatches of flowers and trifles to her, yet he felt this extravagance would become extinguished under daily companionship, and the poems provoked by her charms would go far towards their daily maintenance. Yes, he could throw up the University. He would rescue her from this bully, this gentleman bruiser. They would live openly and nobly in the world’s eye. A poet was not even expected to be conventional.
She, on her side, was no less ardent for the great step. She raged against the world’s law, the injustice by which a husband’s cruelty was not sufficient ground for divorce. ‘But we finer souls must take the law into our own hands,’ she wrote. ‘We must teach society that the ethics of a barbarous age are unfitted for our century of enlightenment.’ But somehow the actual time and place of the elopement could never get itself fixed. In September her husband dragged her to Scotland, in October after the pheasants. When the dramatic day was actually fixed, Winifred wrote by the next post deferring it for a week. Even the few actual preliminary meetings they planned for Kensington Gardens or Hampstead Heath rarely came off. He lived in a whirling atmosphere of express letters of excuse, and telegrams that transformed the situation from hour to hour. Not that her passion in any way abated, or her romantic resolution really altered: it was only that her conception of time and place and ways and means was dizzily mutable.
But after nigh six months of palpitating negotiations with the adorable Mrs. Glamorys, the poet, in a moment of dejection, penned the prose apophthegm, ‘It is of no use trying to change a changeable person.’
But at last she astonished him by a sketch plan of the elopement, so detailed, even to band-boxes and the Paris night route via Dieppe, that no further room for doubt was left in his intoxicated soul, and he was actually further astonished when, just as he was putting his hand-bag into the hansom, a telegram was handed to him saying: ‘Gone to Homburg. Letter follows.’
He stood still for a moment on the pavement in utter distraction. What did it mean? Had she failed him again? Or was it simply that she had changed the city of refuge from Paris to Homburg? He was about to name the new station to the cabman, but then, ‘letter follows’. Surely that meant that he was to wait for it. Perplexed and miserable, he stood with the telegram crumpled up in his fist. What a ridiculous situation! He had wrought himself up to the point of breaking with the world and his past, and now—it only remained to satisfy the cabman!
He tossed feverishly all night, seeking to soothe himself, but really exciting himself the more by a hundred plausible explanations. He was now strung up to such a pitch of uncertainty that he was astonished for the third time when the ‘letter’ did duly ‘follow’.
‘Dearest,’ it ran, ‘as I explained in my telegram, my husband became suddenly ill’—(‘if she had only put that in the telegram,’ he groaned)—’and was ordered to Homburg. Of course it was impossible to leave him in this crisis, both for practical and sentimental reasons. You yourself, darling, would not like me to have aggravated his illness by my flight just at this moment, and thus possibly have his death on my conscience.’ (‘Darling, you are always right,’ he said, kissing the letter.) ‘Let us possess our souls in patience a little longer. I need not tell you how vexatious it will be to find myself nursing him in Homburg—out of the season even—instead of the prospect to which I had looked forward with my whole heart and soul. But what can one do? How true is the French proverb, ‘Nothing happens but the unexpected’! Write to me immediately Poste Restante, that I may at least console myself with your dear words.’
The unexpected did indeed happen. Despite draughts of Elizabeth-brunnen and promenades on the Kurhaus terrace, the stalwart woman beater succumbed to his malady. The curt telegram from Winifred gave no indication of her emotions. He sent a reply-telegram of sympathy with her trouble. Although he could not pretend to grieve at this sudden providential solution of their life-problem, still he did sincerely sympathize with the distress inevitable in connection with a death, especially on foreign soil.
He was not able to see her till her husband’s body had been brought across the North Sea and committed to the green repose of the old Hampstead churchyard. He found her pathetically altered—her face wan and spiritualized, and all in subtle harmony with the exquisite black gown. In the first interview, he did not dare speak of their love at all. They discussed the immortality of the soul, and she quoted George Herbert. But with the weeks the question of their future began to force its way back to his lips.
‘We could not decently marry before six months,’ she said, when definitely confronted with the problem.
‘Six months!’ he gasped.
‘Well, surely you don’t want to outrage everybody,’ she said, pouting.
At first he was outraged himself. What! She who had been ready to flutter the world with a fantastic dance was now measuring her footsteps. But on reflection he saw that Mrs. Glamorys was right once more. Since Providence had been good enough to rescue them, why should they fly in its face? A little patience, and a blameless happiness lay before them. Let him not blind himself to the immense relief he really felt at being spared social obloquy. After all, a poet could be unconventional in his work—he had no need of the practical outlet demanded for the less gifted.
They scarcely met at all during the next six months—it had, naturally, in this grateful reaction against their recklessness, become a sacred period, even more charged with tremulous emotion than the engagement periods of those who have not so nearly scorched themselves. Even in her presence he found a certain pleasure in combining distant adoration with the confident expectation of proximity, and thus she was restored to the sanctity which she had risked by her former easiness. And so all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
When the six months had gone by, he came to claim her hand. She was quite astonished. ‘You promised to marry me at the end of six months,’ he reminded her.
‘Surely it isn’t six months already,’ she said.
He referred her to the calendar, recalled the date of her husband’s death.
‘You are strangely literal for a poet,’ she said. ‘Of course I said six months, but six months doesn’t mean twenty-six weeks by the clock. All I meant was that a decent period must intervene. But even to myself it seems only yesterday that poor Harold was walking beside me in the Kurhaus Park.’ She burst into tears, and in the face of them he could not pursue the argument.
Gradually, after several interviews and letters, it was agreed that they should wait another six months.
‘She is right,’ he reflected again. ‘We have waited so long, we may as well wait a little longer and leave malice no handle.’
The second six months seemed to him much longer than the first. The charm of respectful adoration had lost its novelty, and once again his breast was racked by fitful fevers which could scarcely calm themselves even by conversion into sonnets. The one point of repose was that shining fixed star of marriage. Still smarting under Winifred’s reproach of his unpoetic literality, he did not intend to force her to marry him exactly at the end of the twelve-month. But he was determined that she should have no later than this exact date for at least ‘naming the day’. Not the most punctilious stickler for convention, he felt, could deny that Mrs. Grundy’s claim had been paid to the last minute.
The publication of his new volume—containing the Winifred lyrics—had served to colour these months of intolerable delay. Even the reaction of the critics against his poetry, that conventional revolt against every second volume, that parrot cry of over-praise from the very throats that had praised him, though it pained and perplexed him, was perhaps really helpful. At any rate, the long waiting was over at last. He felt like Jacob after his years of service for Rachel.
The fateful morning dawned bright and blue, and, as the towers of Oxford were left behind him he recalled that distant Saturday when he had first gone down to meet the literary lights of London in his publisher’s salon. How much older he was now than then—and yet how much younger! The nebulous melancholy of youth, the clouds of philosophy, had vanished before this beautiful creature of sunshine whose radiance cut out a clear line for his future through the confusion of life.
At a florist’s in the High Street of Hampstead he bought a costly bouquet of white flowers, and walked airily to the house and rang the bell jubilantly. He could scarcely believe his ears when the maid told him her mistress was not at home. How dared the girl stare at him so impassively? Did she not know by what appointment—on what errand—he had come? Had he not written to her mistress a week ago that he would present himself that afternoon?
‘Not at home!’ he gasped. ‘But when will she be home?’
‘I fancy she won’t be long. She went out an hour ago, and she has an appointment with her dressmaker at five.’
‘Do you know in what direction she’d have gone?’
‘Oh, she generally walks on the Heath before tea.’
The world suddenly grew rosy again. ‘I will come back again,’ he said. Yes, a walk in this glorious air—heathward—would do him good.
As the door shut he remembered he might have left the flowers, but he would not ring again, and besides, it was, perhaps, better he should present them with his own hand, than let her find them on the hall table. Still, it seemed rather awkward to walk about the streets with a bouquet, and he was glad, accidentally to strike the old Hampstead Church, and to seek a momentary seclusion in passing through its avenue of quiet gravestones on his heathward way.
Mounting the few steps, he paused idly a moment on the verge of this green ‘God’s-acre’ to read a perpendicular slab on a wall, and his face broadened into a smile as he followed the absurdly elaborate biography of a rich, self-made merchant who had taught himself to read, ‘Reader, go thou and do likewise,’ was the delicious bull at the end. As he turned away, the smile still lingering about his lips, he saw a dainty figure tripping down the stony graveyard path, and though he was somehow startled to find her still in black, there was no mistaking Mrs. Glamorys. She ran to meet him with a glad cry, which filled his eyes with happy tears.
‘How good of you to remember!’ she said, as she took the bouquet from his unresisting hand, and turned again on her footsteps. He followed her wonderingly across the uneven road towards a narrow aisle of graves on the left. In another instant she has stooped before a shining white stone, and laid his bouquet reverently upon it. As he reached her side, he saw that his flowers were almost lost in the vast mass of floral offerings with which the grave of the woman beater was bestrewn.
‘How good of you to remember the anniversary,’ she murmured again.
‘How could I forget it?’ he stammered, astonished. ‘Is not this the end of the terrible twelve-month?’
The soft gratitude died out of her face. ‘Oh, is that what you were thinking of?’
‘What else?’ he murmured, pale with conflicting emotions.
‘What else! I think decency demanded that this day, at least, should be sacred to his memory. Oh, what brutes men are!’ And she burst into tears.
His patient breast revolted at last. ‘You said he was the brute!’ he retorted, outraged.
‘Is that your chivalry to the dead? Oh, my poor Harold, my poor Harold!’
For once her tears could not extinguish the flame of his anger. ‘But you told me he beat you,’ he cried.
‘And if he did, I dare say I deserved it. Oh, my darling, my darling!’ She laid her face on the stone and sobbed.
John Lefolle stood by in silent torture. As he helplessly watched her white throat swell and fall with the sobs, he was suddenly struck by the absence of the black velvet band—the truer mourning she had worn in the lifetime of the so lamented. A faint scar, only perceptible to his conscious eye, added to his painful bewilderment.
At last she rose and walked unsteadily forward. He followed her in mute misery. In a moment or two they found themselves on the outskirts of the deserted heath. How beautiful stretched the gorsy rolling country! The sun was setting in great burning furrows of gold and green—a panorama to take one’s breath away. The beauty and peace of Nature passed into the poet’s soul.
‘Forgive me, dearest,’ he begged, taking her hand.
She drew it away sharply. ‘I cannot forgive you. You have shown yourself in your true colours.’
Her unreasonableness angered him again. ‘What do you mean? I only came in accordance with our long-standing arrangement. You have put me off long enough.’
‘It is fortunate I did put you off long enough to discover what you are.’
He gasped. He thought of all the weary months of waiting, all the long comedy of telegrams and express letters, the far-off flirtations of the cosy corner, the baffled elopement to Paris. ‘Then you won’t marry me?’
‘I cannot marry a man I neither love nor respect.’
‘You don’t love me!’ Her spontaneous kiss in his sober Oxford study seemed to burn on his angry lips.
‘No, I never loved you.’
He took her by the arms and turned her round roughly. ‘Look me in the face and dare to say you have never loved me.’
His memory was buzzing with passionate phrases from her endless letters. They stung like a swarm of bees. The sunset was like blood-red mist before his eyes.
‘I have never loved you,’ she said obstinately.
‘You—!’ His grasp on her arms tightened. He shook her.
‘You are bruising me,’ she cried.
His grasp fell from her arms as though they were red-hot. He had become a woman beater.