IN a sense, indeed, it was a death-cry that she heard. For Gordon, as he watched her ride away, and listened to the lanthorn clanking against the saddle, knew that his real self went with her.
The extended sympathy for his fellows which he had fostered during these last two years, his interest in their comings and goings, his ambitions and his assiduous patience in straining after their attainment—in fact, the finer qualities of his nature seemed not merely to have been awakened by his one great passion, but to have gained their being from it and to be dependent upon it for their life. They were, if one may use the phrase, the reflex of his imaginative belief in the worth of his mistress—a belief founded purely upon sentiment and sustained by misconceptions of different points in her bearing, such as a certain air of disdain she habitually wore, which was in itself only the result of a fastidious intuition in matters of taste and the like, and which Gordon mistook for the visible sign of an innate superiority.
And so this mute farewell meant something more to him than even the final parting from the woman he loved; it was also a parting from his gentler nature. All that there was of goodness and truth in him had come into his life through Kate Nugent, and now that she took her gift back with her as she went, she left him stripped almost of his humanity, bare and scarred as the rugged crags surroanding him. So intense and poignant grew the feeling of his loss, that he came to fancy, with the imagery peculiar to his bent, that his very soul was the flame of the candle in the lanthorn, which he saw, like a red star, moving farther and farther into the distance.
He made one last spasmodic effort, like a dying man clutching at his life. He ran forward in a mad revolt, and the well-loved name sprang to his lips. “Kitty!” he shouted, his whole being in the cry. But no answer came back to him; he heard the lanthorn still faintly clanking against the saddle, and the mountains drearily mocking him with their melancholy repetition of his word, while the light went steadily dwindling down the Pass—a pin’s head of fire.
For a moment he waited stone-still, staring after it, and then flung himself face-downwards in the bracken, tearing the roots convulsively with his fingers. A savage fury seized him and ran through his veins like a flame, demanding action and retaliation. Any passive return to the old trough of his cynicism was barred by a clear consciousness of what might have been had Kate but matched his truth to her with a like truth to him, and by an exaggerated self-reproach which led him still to fix the chief blame for her treachery upon his own failure to understand her. But there was another man to share his blame. The thought swept down upon him—a black whirlwind blotting out even the image of Kate. If he had erred himself, it was through excess of chivalry; he could, at all events, plead that. But Hawke! Gordon was unable to think of him; he only saw him a sinister picture of malice and craft, and as he looked he became filled with a venom of hate. Hawke’s face rose before his mind, every feature magnified and stamped with the brand of his character, and remained fixed in full view leering at him. Gordon’s loathing grew until he felt sick with the strength of it. He sprang hastily to his feet. The night was very clear, and low down to the ground a spark was just visible in the far distance. But he did not look that way; he turned his back towards Keswick and blindly, with stumbling steps, descended into Wastdale towards his enemy. And all the length of that path Hawke’s face bore him company.
It was close upon four when Kate started off upon her long ride, and, with the knowledge that she had no time to spare, she urged her horse on at a greater speed than the roughness of the Pass made prudent. Once, indeed, at the far end, when the track takes a sudden turn at right angles to its previous course, and begins to wind down into Borrowdale, she barely escaped a heavy fall, and was only saved by the quick recovery of the beast she rode. At the bottom of the decline, however, after crossing Stockley Bridge, the path widens out on to more level ground. But it runs through pastures, and Kate’s progress was impeded by a succession of gates which, since she carried no crop, compelled her to dismount to open them. But by the time she had reached Sea Toller—the long white house, lying two miles from the base of Styhead—the difficulties of her journey were ended. A firm, broad road led straight from that point over the nine miles which separated Kate from Keswick, and she roused her horse to a gallop. The animal stretched itself out in a full stride as if it realised the need for haste, making the night air ring with the clatter of its hoofs, and it seemed to Kate that barely a minute could have passed before she burst through the little village of Rosthwaite.
This quick approach to home, however, plunged a new fear into her breast.
What if her family had discovered her absence?
The question was a fever to her blood. At the time she had set off from Keswick the chance of that discovery had appeared to her the least of the dangers that she ran, so completely had she been engrossed by the necessity of regaining her letters; and, besides, she had laid her plans carefully, with perfect confidence in the fidelity of the groom. Afterwards, at Wastdale, the hurry of events had obscured her to all speculation on the matter, compelling a concentration of her faculties upon immediate issues. Now, however, she began to see a hundred threatening possibihties.
She had pleaded a headache. What more likely than that her father or her aunt should have come to her room to inquire after her before they went to bed? Her father?—she dismissed him with a moment’s reflection. The good man took life and his daughter’s ailments easily. But her aunt! Kate remembercd with a shiver that she was a homoeopathist. She was bound to have inquired. She could not enter the room, it is true, for Kate had locked the door and held the key safe in her pocket.
She felt in her dress suddenly, half-expecting to find that she had dropped it. It was safe, however, and she experienced a relief; but the relief was only momentary.
For the window of her bedroom opened level on to the garden. A lucky advantage, she had considered it before, as affording an easy egress and return. Now it seemed to her the most vulnerable point in her plan. For if her aunt made inquiries at the door, and received no answer, she had but to step into the garden to solve her perplexities. A passing vision of an old lady in bedroom slippers padding over the grass with a box of pills failed to distract her. Kate sent her wits abroad on the wings of fear in search of excuses, but thoy returned to her empty-handed. Her dread was, moreover, accentuated by a retrospect upon the other dangers of that night. Her successful evasion of them only made this last risk loom the larger.
The nearer she drew towards home, the more it overshadowed her. When she crossed the marsh land at the end of the Lake, discovery had already become the probability; by the time she passed Lodore, a certainty, and when she topped Castle Hill, just above Keswick town, she strained her eyes towards the water’s edge, fully expecting to see every window of their house ablaze with light.
All was in darkness, however, except for one faint glimmer, which Kate guessed came from the stables. The revulsion of feeling which she underwent acted on her like a shock, and she reined up her horse and clung to the saddle, dizzy. In the hollow a clock chimed the half-hour, lifting a silvery encouragement, and she moved on again slowly down the hill. Some twenty yards from the front of the house she dismounted, led the horse into a lane which gave on to the road, crossed a paddock at the back of the garden, and reached the stables, which stood apart from the main building. The light which she had noticed came from the harnessroom; she tapped softly on the windowpane and was answered by a low growl, followed by a sharp “Quiet!”
Immediately afterwards the door was opened cautiously, and the groom Martin appeared and led the horse in quietly. Kate followed him and closed the door.
“What time is it?” she asked, in a whisper.
“Just gone half-past five, Miss.”
“Has any one—I mean, no one has noticed my absence?”
Martin reassured her, with a touch of patronage in his tone, which a cockney deficiency of aspirates made singularly unpalatable. She turned to the collie; he had followed Martin from the harness-room and was wisely superintending the proceedings with his ear cocked and his head on one side.
“You brought Charlie in.”
“Yes, Miss! I dursn’t leave him in the yard. He mightn’t have known your footsteps at once.”
“That was thoughtful of you.” The dog took the compliment to itself after the fashion of its kind, and showed his appreciation by planting his forepaws as high up on her as he could, and stretching itself lazily,
“Thank you very much,” said Kate. “Good night!” and she hurried across the yard, pursued by a whispered—
“You’re very welcome, Miss, I’m sure.” A wicket-gate gave her entrance into the garden, and she crept softly to the window of her bedroom, and opened it with a palpitating heart. Nothing, however, had been disarranged, the room was as she had left it. She did not dare to risk a light, but flung off her clothes quickly in the dark, unlocked the door, and tumbled into bed. For a long time sleep would not come to her in spite of her fatigue. She heard the clock strike six, and then half-past. For now that she herself was safe, her thoughts unconsciously reverted to Gordon. She saw his face again framed in the darkness, as the light fell on it from her lanthom, and wondered whether he was still on the bridge, looking eastwards down the Pass. That last cry of his recurred to her. “Kitty!” The name rang in her ears, stretched out into a threnody. She tried to flee from it, and it pursued her, now swelling into the deep peal of an organ-note, now sinking into a pitiful wail. And it was not merely the cry she heard, but Gordon’s voice in it, vibrating with its hopeless misery. For a time it accused her sharply, but with continual repetition began to lose its meaning. The girl started to murmur the word to herself mechanically, in an undertone of accompaniment. Finally it became a lullabye, and so hymned her to sleep.
Was she destined to hear it all her life, Kate questioned on the borderland of sleep.
A hand was laid on her shoulder and she woke with a start. A girl-cousin, one of the intending bridesmaids, was standing by her bedside.
“How startled you look!”
“I thought you were——” Kate checked herself in confusion, and a peal of laughter rippled through the room. It warned her of the part she had to play.
“What time is it?” she asked hastily.
“Ten o’clock! Your aunt would not have you called before. How is your head?”
Kate asserted complete recovery and proceeded to dress, though with a languid dilatoriness which belied her statement. The house was nearly full of her women-folk relations, and she dreaded to face them. She looked at herself in the mirror and fancied every one would read her night’s ride in her jaded pallor and the shadows about her eyes. Even her father noticed them when she entered the breakfast-room, with a “You don’t look over bright, Kitty!” The company was assembled in full force about the table, and she had to run the gauntlet of their smirking condolements. “Never mind. I will put you right. It’s bile.” Homoeopathy smiled comfortably from behind the tea-urn, and Kate for the first time thanked Providence for the birth of Dr. Hahnemann. She noticed with relief that the meal was nearly over, but gained no respite thereby. For, after breakfast, there were new presents to be inspected and acclaimed—noticeably one from Poonah, a jade idol of most admired ugliness. Kate explained her shiver of repulsion by the carven malice of its features. Then followed consultations upon frocks, interspersed with eulogies of David and predictions of the happiness in store for well-assorted couples, plainly calling for enthusiastic answers nicely tempered by a diffident modesty. At times, indeed, the task almost exceeded her powers of endurance, and she felt madly spurred to hurl the truth like a bombshell into the midst of the flummery. She restrained herself, however, drawing a faint solace of amusement from a mental picture of the resultant chaos, and somehow or another the day wore on to its close. “They will know in the morning,” she reflected. But she was mistaken. It was not until the third day that the news of the liberation came.
Gordon quickened his pace as ho reached the basin of the valley under an apprehension lest he should find the farm people already risen. For, although it was still quite dark, there was all around him that universal movement, as if the earth itself were stirring from its sleep, which tells of an approaching dawn. The last two fields he covered at a run and regained the farm only to discover that his fears were groundless. The lamp in his parlour was still alight, but beginning to flicker for want of replenishing. Gordon cautiously opened the door at the foot of the staircase and listened. But he could hear nothing but his own breathing; evidently no one was moving as yet. He returned into the room to blow out the lamp, but was checked by the sight of his writing case on a cabinet against the wall. He went to it, drew out a packet of letters, and, pulling up a chair to the table, read, by the last spurts of the light, those which Kate had sent to him from Poonah. How blind he must have been, he thought. Why, effort was visible in every line of them, coldness seeking to screen itself beneath a wealth of phrases. He commenced to speculate curiously which portions were Hawke’s dictation and which her own work; otherwise the letters awakened no feeling in him. Phrases here and there fixed his attention. “You came into my life like a ray of sunlight into a musty room.” Yes! Hawke would have invented that, knowing how it would appeal to him. And, again, “I feel that I can rely on you whatever comes”—a postscript, scribbled hastily and smudged, evidently Kate’s own, and written covertly in Hawke’s presence. The extinction of the lamp put an end to this unprofitable investigation, and Gordon gathered the letters together, placed them in the grate, and set them ablaze. He waited until the last spark had died out and a heap of black flaky ashes was all that was left of the false tokens which he had treasured as sacred, and then crept cautiously up to his room. For some time he remained by his window, thinking. He noticed the angle in the barn-wall from which Hawke had darted out, and it seemed to him that the century might well have run to its end since then. His mind wandered to a side-issue, jumping at a stray suggestion that Time was held to mark age only because it represented the conventional progress of self-knowledge.
But what if the knowledge of twenty years were crowded into one night? Gordon felt that that had been the case with him. He understood so much now; for instance, the fancy which had fleetingly occurred to him that they both had been brought into the isolation of that valley to work out a predestined purpose. He understood that purpose, could explain it, and would demonstrate his explanation to the other’s ignorance tomorrow. A gradual fading of colour from the sky made him correct himself. “To-day,” he murmured, with something of quiet exultation in his voice. Only he must spare Kate; no suspicion must be allowed to connect her with the solution of his problem. “I feel that I can rely on you whatever comes,” she had written. Well, he must prove to her that she was right—some way or another. The sound of movement in the interior of the house brought him back to the present and hinted the advantage of rest. So Gordon went to bed and slept dreamlessly until the sun stood high above the shoulder of Great End.