“MY mother died,” she began, “eight months after our engagement, and then I went out to Poonah on a visit to my uncle. It is just a year and a half since I started.”
“Yea! I remember. I did not want you to go.”
“And I insisted. You know why now.”
“Yes! I know why now.”
Gordon repeated her words with a shiver. If only he had understood her a little better, he thought.
Kate hardly noticed his interruption. She was staring straight into the fire and speaking in a dull monotone, with no spring in her voice. She would have spared him now, had she been able, but she felt irresistibly impelled to lay all her disloyalty bare before his eyes—to show him at how empty a shrine he had been worshipping. It seemed to her almost as if some stronger will was prompting her, and the very sound of her words was thin and strange to her ears, as though some one else was speaking them at a great distance.
“Yes,” she continued, “I wanted to get away from you—to slip out of my shackles for a time. So I went to Poonah, and—and there I found Austen.”
“Austen! Austen!” Gordon burst out in a frenzy. “For God’s sake, don’t call him that!” and he brought his clenched fist down on the table with all his strength. The glasses on it rattled at the blow, and the tumbler which Hawke had used, standing close at the edge, fell and splintered on the floor. Gordon laughed at the sight.
“That was his glass,” he explained. “He was here to-night, drinking with me,” and he laughed again, harshly.
The girl hurriedly drew her skirts away from the broken fragments.
“I am sorry,” Gordon said, recovering his composure, “I interrupted you. Go on!”
But there was a new hardness in his tone. Kate remarked it, and it grated on her painfully after his forbearance. She paused for a moment, looking at him anxiously. But he made no further sign, and she took up the burden of her tale again.
“There I found Mr. Hawke. I don’t think I had ever given a thought to him before. But from this time he began to influence me, because of the difference between yourself and him. He paid me no respect, no deference, and outwardly, indeed, no attention; but all the time I felt that he was consciously and deliberately taking possession of me, and I made no struggle to resist him. He became my master—imposed himself upon me until I lost the sense of responsibility for my own actions. It was not that he gave me orders or even suggested them, but somehow I always realised what he wanted me to do, and did it. And I knew besides that he was conscious of my submission and counted on it.”
Kate had relapsed into the impersonal commonplace manner which had characterised her speech before Gordon broke in. The words fell from her lips in a level regularity, without rise or fall, and she was abstractedly smoothing out one of the broad ribbons of her sash—an old trick of hers, very familiar to her listener. For all the , emotion that she showed she might have been dissecting the character of an uninteresting acquaintance.
“So that is the way for men to win women!”
“Some women, yes!”
“Well, there is nothing like buying one’s experience, they say.”
The attempt at sarcasm only served to reveal the intensity of Gordon’s suffering. He was sitting with his body bent forward and his chin pressed against his chest; his hands were clenched between his knees, and his whole attitude told of the strain his self-repression caused him.
“Go on,” he muttered.
“I have told you enough,” she exclaimed, tossed out of her apathy by a sudden comprehension of the torture her story inflicted.
“No! no!” Gordon replied, hoarsely. “Go on! Go on and finish it!”
“Well,” she continued, her voice sinking into a tremulous whisper, “one evening I was left in the house alone. The rest had gone out to a dance, but I was worn out by the heat, and remained at home. It was very hot; there was hardly a breath of air, I remember, and I curled myself up in a long chair on the verandah and fell fast asleep. I was awakened by some one pulling my hair, and when I looked up I saw who it was.”
“How long was that before you left India?”
“And during those two months you kept writing home to me and saying how slowly the time passed.”
Gordon spoke with an accent of incredulous wonder. Each moment thrust a new inconceivable fact before his eyes, and forced him to contemplate it. He felt that his world was toppling in ruins about him, much as it had done in that first year of his University life.
“That was not my fault,” the girl exclaimed. “He made me do it. I wanted to write to you and break the engagement off; but he would not let me. I suppose he was afraid I should bother him to marry me himself,” she concluded, contemptuously.
“And you obeyed him in that, too?”
“I tell you, I was at his mercy. He did what he liked with me. He made me write those letters to you;” and she added, with a certain softness, “and in a way, too, I was glad he did.”
“Because even then I was afraid of him. I distrusted him, and you seemed a kind of anchor for me, and every letter an extra link in the cable.”
The words touched Gordon strangely. The surface implication that he was valued merely as a convenient refuge from the consequences of folly did not occur to him. He applied a deeper meaning to them, and fancied that she had been willing to retain her hold on him for much the same reason which had made him cling to her—out of an instinctive need to feel something stable in a world of shadow. She had taken an open knife from the table and was mechanically tracing with its point the crimson lines upon her dress, and he thought her tired helplessness was the saddest sight man could ever see. Sentences out of the letters came back to him.
“So, in a way,” he said, almost with a smile, “you meant what you wrote.”
“Yes! What I wrote. But I wrote so little of them myself. I mean,” she went on, noticing the surprise in the other’s face, “I put the words down. He dictated them.”
A sudden fury seized upon Gordon. For the first time since he had been talking with Kate, he realised Hawke the man, a living treacherous being, flesh and blood, that could be crushed and killed. The idea sent a thrill through his veins. The lust for revenge sprang up, winged and armed, in a flame of hatred. His imagination pictured the scene, clear cut as a cameo; he saw the keen, pointed face bending over Kate’s shoulder; he heard him unctuously rolling out loving phrases, savouring them as he spoke, and chuckling over the deceit.
He turned on Kate in a frenzy.
“He dictated them; and he laughed as he did it, I suppose. Did he laugh? Tell me! Did he laugh?”
Gordon shook the girl’s arm savagely, his face livid and working with passion. His aspect terrified her. She dared not tell him the truth, and she turned away with a shudder.
“That is answer enough,” and he dropped her arm and began again pacing about the room. Now, however, he walked quietly and softly, with his shoulders rounded and his head thrust forward. His lips were drawn back from his teeth, and there was something catlike in his tread, which reminded Kate irresistibly of Hawke. Indeed, to her fevered eyes, he began to change and to grow like his enemy in face and bearing.
“Don’t,” she whispered. “You frighten me. You remind me of him.”
The words recalled Gordon to himself. There was something else ho wished to know. What was it? He beat his forehead with the palms of his hands in the effort to rocollect. If only he could banish Hawke from his mind until she had gone! At last the question took shape.
“The letters he was reading to you?”
“They were notes and appointments written when we were both at Poonah,” she answered, submissively. “I never thought that he would keep them, though I might have known he would.”
“And the three he has still?”
“They were the only real letters I ever wrote to him. There were four, but I burned one to-night.”
“Yes! I saw.”
“I wrote them on the way home, from Calcutta, Aden, Brindisi and the last from London the evening I arrived.”
“You have never written since?”
“Never! Nor have I seen him since until he compelled me to come to-night.”
She stopped suddenly, as if some new idea had crossed her mind. In a moment, however, she began again, but she was speaking to herself.
“No. I had to come. There was no other way. I dared not leave those letters in his hands. Oh! how I hate him!”
She uttered the words with a slow intensity which enforced conviction, looking straight at Gordon; and he saw a flame commence to glow in the depths of her eyes and spread until her whole face was ablaze with it.
“Do you mean that?” he queried, almost eagerly.
“Can you doubt it?” she replied, starting to her feet. “Oh, yes, you would! I forgot. Oh, David, if only you had understood me better!”
It was what he had been saying to himself, with a deep self-reproach, and her repetition of his thought, coupled with a weary gesture of despair, exaggerated the feeling on him by the addition of a very lively pity.
“So that is true, then?” he asked, hesitatingly. “You no longer care for him?”
The mere weakness of the question betokened a mind in doubt, as to its choice of action, betrayed a certain tentative indecision.
“I never really cared for him,” she answered.
A look of actual gladness showed in the man’s face. They were standing opposite to one another, and the girl shut her eyelids tight, as if the sight hurt her.
“That pleases you!” she exclaimed, twisting her hands convulsively. “Ah! Don’t you understand? It is the most horrible part of it all to me—that I never cared for him. It doubles my shame. He dominated me when he was with me, close to me, by my side; but I never cared for him. I had realised that by the time I reached England, and my last letter was to tell him so.”
Her whole attitude expressed humiliation. Had she been able to look back upon a passion overmastering both Hawke and herself, and encircling them in a ring of flame which, by its very brightness, made the world beyond look colourless and empty, she could have found some plea to alleviate her consciousness of guilt. As it was, however, the episode appeared nakedly sordid to her recollection, unredeemed by even a flavour of romance.
“So you never really cared for him!”
Gordon’s earnest insistence struck her as singular. He seemed to have taken no note of the last words, but dwelt upon that one point—clung to it, it appeared. What difference could it make to him, she wondered, whether she had cared or not; the sin lay between them none the less. She watched his face for the solution. Perplexity was shown in the contracted forehead and in a tremulous twitching of the lips. As a matter of fact, Gordon was hunting a will-o’-the-wisp of hope, and it had led him to the brink of a resolve. Should he take the leap, or soberly decline it! He hesitated, half made up his mind, took one short halting step towards Kate and stopped, checked by a new thought.
“You said you would have broken off our engagement had he allowed you!”
“Yes! I said that.”
“Why didn’t you when you returned to England and felt free from him?”
The girl gained a hint of his drift more from his manner than his question, and answered him warily, with a spark of hope.
“Because, as I told you, I relied on you so much, and I felt the need of some one I could trust more than ever then. Besides, every one approved of the marriage.”
An abrupt movement warned her that she had chosen a wrong turning. A quick traverse, however, brought her out upon the right road again.
“It is not so easy for a girl to cut the knot. She must find explanations to justify her—valid not only to her parents, but to the man. And I knew you would not let me go so lightly. I knew that I meant all the world to you.”
She paused, but Gordon gave no sign, and she repeated her words with a nervous smile.
“It sounds queer, but it is true all the same. I knew that I meant all the world to you.”
Again she waited, but with a like result. He was still pondering, still in doubt. The way in which he drew his breath, now in short, jerky catches, now in a long, labouring sigh, made that plain to her. Her shot had failed of its aim.
A sudden gust of the wind brought the rustle of the trees through the open door. Kate looked at the clock; the hands made one threatening line.
“Two o’clock!” she cried, with a start. “I must get back to Keswick while they are still asleep—asleep.” She spoke the word again with a melancholy longing in her voice which was indescribably sad.
“You will write, then,” she resumed, “and break it off.”
Gordon nodded assent, and she turned away in search for something.
The action helped to decide Gordon by pointing out the necessity of decision. What course should he take? He had thought to choose his path on careful reflection when Kate was on her way back to Keswick; but he saw now that would be too late. It would be time enough then to consider the consequences of his choice, how best to cope with them and force them to his service; but the choice itself could not be deferred. For if he let her go quietly without another word the matter would be settled finally, the choice determined, a prison wall raised to further effort. What course should he take? The question pressed urgently for an immediate answer.
He went to the door and out into the porch. The sudden slip into night seemed to him a symbol of what his life would mean if he kept silence. His mind played with the idea and carried it further. It pictured him standing alone in the empty darkness and the girl behind him alone in the empty light. The beck, too, at the back of the house, whispered its music in his ears and pleaded with him.
A timid hand was laid on his arm: Kate was by his side.
“I was listening to the brook,” he said.
For a while they both stood quiet in the gloom of the porch.
“What do you hear in it?” he asked.
“I dare not tell you. What do you?”
“I hear all my days to come flowing down and down with a sound of tears.”
“David!” she said, her voice breaking on the name.
He had often noticed the wonderful clearness of her eyes, and they shone very softly on him now. He drew her towards him in the gloom of the porch.
“Kitty!” he whispered, “tell me that it isn’t true! Tell me I have been dreaming! I will believe you. I must believe you. For if I lose faith in you, I lose faith in everything. You have been the light of my life, making the world real. If that dies out, I live in the dark, always.”
Her heart sank lower with every word he uttered. She had hoped for forgiveness, for a recognition of the dead sin, with a belief in an atoning future. But he gave her no hint of that. Nay, his very phrases proved that the conception was beyond his reach. “If I lose faith in you, I lose faith in everything.” The sentence showed the exotic sickliness of his faith, demonstrated it no vital inherent part of him rooted in his being, but an alien graft watered and kept alive by his passion. He had not the sturdiness to accept the facts, nor the sincerity to foresee the possibility of redemption. He would marry her. Yes! But his motive was an instinct of self-preservation rather than his love for her. She would still have to pose upon her pedestal, apeing the stainless goddess; he would still have to kneel at her feet, apeing the worshipper; and both in their hearts would know the hollowness of their pretence.
Kate realised the futility of such a marriage, and looking forward, caught a glimpse of the day when the sham would shred and vanish before the truth, like a morning mist at sunrise.
Gordon felt her whole frame relax and draw away from him. He clasped her hands; there was no response in them. He held her closer, placed one hand behind her head and turned her face up towards him, while the warm curls nestled and twined about his fingers.
“Kitty! Why don’t you answer? Tell me that it isn’t true! Every belief I have depends on that.”
“Oh! Don’t make me responsible for everything,” she replied, with a flash of her old petulance. “I am only one woman in the world.”
“But the only woman in the world for me. You know it. You said so yourself. Tell me that it isn’t true! Lie to me, if you must!” he added, with a passionate cry. “I will believe the lie.”
“That could be of no use either to you or to me.”
She spoke coldly, with the familiar feeling of repugnance reawakened by his effort to canonise her afresh. Besides, the knowledge of the truth vibrated in every tone of his voice, and his despairing resolve to crush and drown that knowledge added a sense of mockery to her repulsion.
“That could be of no use,” she said. “There was just a chance of our joining hands again, but what you have said has destroyed it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You may some day.”
“It is true,” she resumed. “All that you saw, all that you heard Austen Hawke say, all that I have told you—every word of it is true.”
She turned from him and went back into the room, while Gordon sank upon the low coping of the garden fence.
The girl came out to him again after a while.
“Have you seen my shawl? I can’t find it.”
“Did you bring it away from the Inn?” Gordon asked, dully.
The question made Kate start. She must have left it there.
“Never mind,” Gordon said;” I will get it back with the letters.”
He passed through the porch and took down a lanthorn from a nail in the wall.
“I will come up with you to the head of the Pass.”
“Don’t light it,” she said. “It might be seen.”
He was on the point of replacing it, but stopped and asked—
“Did you bring one with your horse?”
“Then I had better take it. It will keep you from stumbling when you are riding home. There is a scarf on the sofa.”
Kate twisted it over her head and they passed out softly into the lane.