THE WIND had dropped with the advance of morning, and only an impalpable breath—a faint reminiscence of the wind it seemed—stirring the larch-clumps, dotted here and there along the lower edges of their path, broke the stillness for a moment as they passed. They paused by the side of a watercourse which, descending from Great Gable, the mountain on their left, cut through the track on its way to the centre of the valley and caused a gap of some fifty feet. Stones planted at intervals uncertainly in the stream gave an insecure footing, and afforded the only traverse to the opposite side; and in the darkness their position was dimly shown, or, rather, could be hazily guessed at, by little points of white where the water swirled and broke about them.
“I must have crossed it when I came,” said Kate, blankly. “But I don’t remember. I don’t seem to have noticed it at all. I should slip on the stepping-stones now.”
“Let me carry you over!”
“No!” she replied quickly. “I crossed it safely before. I can do the same again.”
There was a greater confidence in her words than in her voice, and she still hesitated on the brink. Instinctively she laid a hand upon Gordon’s sleeve for steadiness, but drew it away hurriedly when she felt the contact of his arm. Her companion renewed his offer of help, but, without answering him, she stepped forward on to the nearest boulder. Her foot, set down timidly, slipped on its polished roundness. Gordon, however, was alert to her fatigue, and his arm was round her waist before she had completely lost her balance.
“Lean towards me,” he said, and lightly lifted her back on to the bank. She remained for a second in his support, lulled by a physical feeling of security induced in her by the strong clasp of his arm. Then she freed herself almost roughly, and silently faced the stream again.
“It will be best if I go first,” said Gordon. “I can give you a hand then.”
“Is there no other crossing?” she asked, straining her gaze vainly up and down the stream.
“No! Surely you can take that much help from me.”
He planted himself as firmly as he could, Colossus-wise on the rocks.
“All right!” he said, and stretched out a hand towards her. She took it reluctantly and made a second trial, wavered as she reached the stone on which she had slipped, and secured her balance by tightening her grasp. So they proceeded until a wider interval than usual flowed between their footholds.
Gordon turned his head round to her.
“You must let go of me here!”
“Yes! or I may slip and drag you in.”
She only realised how hard had been her grip when she relaxed it, and the consequent knowledge of the assistance she had needed gave her a momentary sense of loneliness now that it was removed. Gordon was just able to bridge the distance between the boulders with the full reach of his stride. That on which he now stood, however, was flat and broad, a platform that gave sure footing.
“You will have to sprmg,” he cried. “I can catch you. I am solid enough here.”
“I can’t,” she replied, “I daren’t move.”
She stood looking into the water bubbling at her feet, and its swift flow made her feel giddy and insecure.
“What am I to do?” she cried plaintively.
“You must jump,” Gordon answered. “It is the only way. Jump boldly! Don’t be afraid, I will catch you.”
The ring of confidence in his voice enheartened her, and she tried to face the leap, but recoiled from it. Why had she refused his offer, was her first thought; why had he not renewed it, her second. The stone on which she was standing rolled with the movement, and she uttered a cry.
“Dav—,” she began, and shore the name of its tail.
In a moment he was by her side, standing on the bed of the channel and the water up to his thighs. The girl clung to him.
“I seem to have lost my nerve altogether,” and she essayed a laugh unsuccessfully.
“You are tired, that’s all.”
“Yes, I am tired,” she answered, “very tired.”
And she leaned her weight upon him, resting her arm on his shoulders. Their muscular breadth renewed in her the feeling of protection, and she waited expectantly for him to propose again to carry her, or, better still, to just lift her up without a word and so spare her a repast of her own words. To all seeming, however, Gordon was waiting too. “He means the request to come from me,” she thought. As a matter of fact, nothing was farther from his reflections. The experience of the past few hours had rendered the perfect control of his faculties impossible, and the shuttles in the loom of his mind, set at work by the touch of any chance suggestion, were weaving his thoughts in a grotesque inconsequence. The tension of her attitude recalled the pedestal on which he had perched her, as she said, to the undoing of them both. He had a vision of a pair of tiny feet, delicately shod in grey kid slippers, straining to fix high heels firmly on a smooth sloping surface.
Kate threw out a more patent suggestion.
“I am very tired, and this stone is not over restful.”
“I was just thinking,” he answered abstractedly. “it must be as awkward as my pedestal.”
The unconscious sarcasm stung her to the quick.
“Don’t laugh at me!” she pleaded, and realised that she was pleading.
“Laugh at you?” he replied. “Good God! I have got to finish my laugh at myself first, and I think it will take me all my life.”
“For believing in me?” she asked rather sadly. The bitterness of his remark seemed to show her that he grasped at last the full folly of his faith in her. It was the goal at which she had been aiming, and yet, now that it was reached, she felt a keen pang of regret.
“No! For demanding so much myself.” The knowledge that she had mistaken his meaning gratified her and, indeed, raised him in her respect. The words, spoken at another time, would only have served to strengthen her old conception of him, and to justify that lurking contempt for his humility which formed a factor in her ready reliance upon his services. Now, however, she stood in sore need of his help; he was there dominating her plainly by the superiority of his physical strength, and he could afford to be humble, nay, rather bettered his position by the contrast. Kate gave in and said weakly: “I am afraid that I shall have to ask you to carry me across after all.”
“It is what I came back for,” he answered, no suspicion of her thoughts occurring to him. He lifted her slight figure with an absence of effort or jerk which told of practised sinews, and Kate clasped her hands behind his neck and nestled down into his arms with a child’s sigh of content. To Gordon the sigh conveyed no direct or immediate meaning. His fanciful tendency to symbolism made it expressive only of the relief she had experienced on stepping down from her pedestal.
Had he but known it, however, he was nearer to her heart than he had ever been. He was showing himself in the man’s shape which most appealed to her. He was the protector, not the attendant, with strength to be appreciated as masterful, not to be carelessly used and forgotten. Had he stopped dead in mid-stream and asserted his cause with a like mental force, claiming her and her sins to himself with the courage of a confident love, he would have undone the harm of his maladroit pleading in the porch.
It was the crucial moment of his life. But his dominance was of the body, not the spirit, and he passed through it without an inkling of its importance.
The next moment he reached the farther bank and set her silently on the ground, apart from him.
From this point the path rose steeply along the side of Great Gable, and as they mounted, the brisk freshness of the air revived the girl’s languid spirits. Her lassitude and the feeling of helpless weakness which it engendered gradually gave place to a lively buoyancy. A new vigour entered her limbs. Gordon was walking a few paces ahead of her, the lanthom swinging at his side on a shoulder-strap, and now and again he turned to help her over some rough portion of the track. But the way was almost as familiar to her as it was to him, and as they rose she needed his assistance less and less. The limpid clearness of the night, too, contributed in no small measure to this invigoration of her nature. The sky was unstained by a cloud, and glittered with a multitude of stars that shone like points of silver, so that the darkness below had a certain translucency. One seemed to see right into the heart of the night; at the same time, the landmarks and boundary walls in the valley—always productive of a sense of limit—were invisible, and the very mountains appeared but deeper shadows, a massing of the darkness, as it were, at separate spots, with here and there a gap from the faint glimmer of a snowdrift. The journey thus appealed to Kate’s senses by its aspect of spaciousness and filled her with a new and strange feeling of liberty. The feeling penetrated to her mind and set in motion a train of thought which, in turn, gave back to it a fresh strength and colour. A consciousness of distinct relief forced itself into evidence as the main result to her of Gordon’s chance visit to Wastdale Head, and obliterated to a great degree the shame of the disclosures which had paved the way for it. She was free alike from the brutal authority of Austen Hawke and from the irksome tyranny of Gordon’s adoration; for the former’s power rested upon its concealment and was killed by Gordon’s discovery of its existence. Every trace of it would vanish when he recovered the three remaining letters. Of the means by which they were to be regained she took no more thought than Gordon at this time did himself. She was too absorbed by her newlyfound freedom to foresee the possibility of danger there. Its forcible pre-occupation of her mind indeed blinded her to all ideas which hinted antagonism. She barely wasted a conjecture on the pretext which her companion would select for the breaking off of their engagement almost on the eve of their marriage. She just caught a dim glimpse of him taking the blame upon himself, and was restfully content to leave the exact solution in his hands. “I will spare you altogether,” he had said; and she knew him well enough for complete assurance that he would keep his word. That she owed her liberty entirely to the generosity of her lover, she hardly felt at all now; from habit, she was incapable of accounting that quality of his at its true value. For a moment, it is true, at the outset of her interview with him in the farm-house, she appreciated with some accuracy the measure of his devotion; but this estimation was due merely to the immediate succession of his presence to that of Hawke and to the pronounced contrast between their attitudes. As their conversation wore on, however, his voice, his words, and certain tricks of manner, gradually brought back to her the familiar conceptions of character which she had always associated with them. And in consequence of the return of those conceptions, the old habit of expecting sacrifices from him as his usual tribute reasserted itself afresh. Her sense of liberty was thus unmarred by doubts or fears, and the rebound of her nature from a preceding despair gave to it a double exhilaration. She drank in the night air with a keen pleasure, its brisk sharpness seeming somehow to harmonise with her thoughts. She would begin her life anew to-morrow, using her knowledge as a clear light for the guiding of her steps. She had a vision of morning mists clearing off a long white road and leaving it vividly distinct—a road in Normandy.
The influence of the hour and the locality was no less predominant over her fellow-traveller, but it led his thoughts in a far opposite direction. All the way up that wearisome ascent he was strewing his steps with the dead leaves of his illusions. The edifice of idealism which he had built up, fancy upon fancy, with such care and such seeming solidity, crumbled in an irresistible decay and forced him to the contemplation of its ruins. And the surrounding space, shapeless and empty of life, stimulated his poignant sense of desolation. He tried to picture and place actual features of the dale, to map out the darkness by his recollections of what it hid. Across there would be the dark mouth of Peer’s Ghyll; or had he passed it?—above his head the cliffs of Great Gable, with its familiar Pinnacle; now he should be opposite the bathing-pool at the bottom of the valley. But it was all uncertainty and surmise, and so far was Gordon from drawing solace from his conjectures, that the intervening gloom, by its sensuous effect, helped largely to reanimate and nurse his old belief in the shifty unreality of things. He came to feel certain of nothing except the narrow strip of path he trod and the light footsteps behind which were following him for the last time, and of which the sound to his ears was exquisitely sad.
They had reached the highest point of the track, where two masses of rock, ranged on either side, form a ruined gateway to the Pass. From there the ground slopes quickly to the Styhead Tarn, and as they skirted its edge they heard the welcoming neigh of Kate’s horse. It was tied to the far end of a primitive footbridge which spans the beck in the valley but a few yards beyond. Gordon lit the lanthom and fastened it to the saddle, and, standing on the end of the bridge, lifted the girl on to the horse’s back. For a moment they remained there, she in the shadow, he with the light streaming full on his face, and then without a word Kate gathered up the reins and rode off eastwards along the Pass. She felt that he was still standing on the bridge in the darkness, but she never turned her head. After a while, she heard him cry out her name “Kitty!” The sound echoed down the hollow in a despairing wail, like a death-cry, and was faintly repeated by the mountains that closed her in, but she only pressed her horse the harder, and rode more steadily towards her home.