I liked you better than any man I had met, and so in time I thought I might come to love you as well. I don't know whether I ever should have reached that if I had been left alone. But you made it impossible. You would not see that I had faults and caprices. You would not see that those very faults pleased me, that I meant to keep them, that I did not want to change. Whenever you came to me, I always felt as if I was being lifted up reverently and set on a very high and a very small pedestal.
And there I had to stand, with my heels together, and my toes turned out, in an attitude of decorum until you had gone. Well, you want people with flat heels to enjoy that. I always wore high ones, and the attitude tired me. Instinctively she stretched one foot out as she spoke. The sparkle of the firelight on the buckle caught Gordon's eye, and he saw that she was wearing thin kid slippers with a strap across the instep. It was dry enough the rest of the way.
But they knew nothing, of course. My father had some people to dinner to-night. I left them early, saying that I was tired. I should have had no time to change if I had thought of it, as it was close on ten. I had told Martin, our groom, that I should want a horse—you know he would do anything for me—and he had it ready saddled.
So I locked my room door, took the key with me, and came away just as I was. She stopped abruptly. The mention of her home aroused her to the consequences of her detection. Up till now the fact that Gordon had found her out had alone possessed her mind. Now, however, she was compelled to look forward.
What would he do? He was to have married her in a week, in just seven days. Would he disclose the truth? She scanned his face for an answer to her conjectures. The question startled Gordon. He had been thinking of her, not of himself. Yes, to-morrow he would have to act. But how? There was something very pitiful in the childlike entreaty; at least so it seemed to Gordon. She was so young for all this misery. Her very humility pained him, all the more because it was so strange to him. I have loved you too well to hurt you now. For a moment or two he paced about the room restlessly, trying to discover some means by which he could break the marriage off and take the blame upon himself.
But no likely plan occurred to him. His brain refused to act. Disconnected scraps of ideas and ludicrous reminiscences, all foreign to the matter, forced themselves upon his mind, the harder he strove to think.
He gave the effort up. He would be able to concentrate his attention better when he was alone. Besides, he recollected he had not heard the whole story as yet. Some clue to an issue might perhaps be found in the untold remainder. Gordon's generosity had pierced straight to her heart at last, and had sent the tears rolling down her cheeks.
I can't," she cried. I can't! If you had been rough and harsh, yes! But you have been so gentle with me. It is just a year and a half since I started. 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. So I went to Poonah, and—and there I found Austen.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. Did he laugh? Tell me! 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.
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.
The words recalled Gordon to himself. There was something else he wished to know. What was it? He beat his forehead with the palms of his hands in the effort to recollect. If only he could banish Hawke from his mind until she had gone! At last the question took shape. There were four, but I burned one 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. I had to come. There was no other way. I dared not leave those letters in his hands. 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. 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.
The mere weakness of the question betokened a mind in doubt, as to its choice of action, betrayed a certain tentative indecision. 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. 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. 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. The girl gained a hint of his drift more from his manner than his question, and answered him warily, with a spark of hope. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
Tell me I have been dreaming! I will believe you.
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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. He had not the sturdiness to accept the facts, nor the sincerity to foresee the possibility of redemption. He would marry her. 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. Why don't you answer? Tell me that it isn't true! Every belief I have depends on that. Don't make me responsible for everything," she replied, with a flash of her old petulance. You know it. Lie to me, if you must! 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. She turned from him and went back into the room, while Gordon sank upon the low coping of the garden fence. It will keep you from stumbling when you are riding home. There is a scarf on the sofa. 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 don't seem to have noticed it at all. I should slip on the stepping-stones now. 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. 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.
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. 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. She stood looking into the water bubbling at her feet, and its swift flow made her feel giddy and insecure.
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. 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. 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. 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. I have got to finish my laugh at myself first, and I think it will take me all my life. 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. 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. 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 lanthorn 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 newly-found 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. 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? 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 re-animate 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 lanthorn 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! 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 surrounding 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.
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He ran forward in a mad revolt, and the well-loved name sprang to his lips. 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. 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 possibilities. 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? The good man took life and his daughter's ailments easily. But her aunt! Kate remembered 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 they 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 harness-room; she tapped softly on the window-pane 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. 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.
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 lanthorn, and wondered whether he was still on the bridge, looking eastwards down the Pass.
That last cry of his recurred to her. 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. 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. It warned her of the part she had to play. 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! I will put you right. It's bile. 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.
But she was mistaken. It was not until the third day that the news of the liberation came. Gordon quickened his pace as he 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. 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. Only he must spare Kate; no suspicion must be allowed to connect her with the solution of his problem.
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. As Gordon was breakfasting next morning, the door was thrown open and Hawke strolled in from the lane.
Gordon let a moment or two slip before he found his tongue. For his new knowledge, acting vividly upon a somewhat morbid imagination, had not merely changed his conceptions of Hawke's character, but, with them, also his very impressions of his appearance. He had been unconsciously developing the man's features and body to express the qualities which he now attributed to him, moulding them, as it were, by the model of his own thoughts.
So that, at the first, when Hawke stood before him in the flesh, clearly lit by the sunlight, which was pouring in through the open doorway, he hardly recognised his enemy. The very colloquialism of his speech seemed incongruous and out of place. There was a shade of anxiety in the question appreciable by his observer, and a faint symptom of a sneer about the lips when the answer was received. Everything depended on the answer. For the presence of this interloper, even for a day, would render the accomplishment of his purpose impossible.
He is on his way to Buttermere. I am going with him part of the distance, and we mean to spend an hour or so on the Pillar Rock. If I have time I shall work round to Eskdale afterwards. But I have to leave for London to-morrow. And, by the way, that is what brought me up here. I shall be late back, I expect, and I want to borrow your lanthorn. Hawke turned towards the nail on which he had seen it hanging the previous night.
Gordon just managed to check an involuntary start from his chair when the other wheeled quickly round. The counter-thrust was delivered with a perfect assumption of carelessness, and Hawke parried it clumsily. I suppose the farmer has taken it. The indifference with which Gordon spoke disarmed Hawke, and the next moment a shadow darkening the doorway effectually prevented any further investigation as to the whereabouts of the missing article. The newcomer carried a lanthorn. But Hawke said he was going to borrow your lanthorn. Why, the landlady had two or three," he went on, turning to Hawke.
So I brought it for you. I never could unravel her dialect. Gordon, you know, was with Arkwright when he died. The conversation drifted into the desired channel, but too late to prevent Gordon realising that the request for a lanthorn had been the merest pretext to enable Hawke to assure himself that the night's proceedings remained a secret. It was interrupted, however, by the servant, who bustled in with the tray to clear the table, and Gordon thought with a tremor: Suppose she had entered a minute earlier?
Hawke would have been certain to question her, and to repeat his request; as it was, however, he was too anxious to cover his slip to risk broaching the subject again. Lawson smothered an incredulous laugh, and Hawke broke in: "Oh, it's true enough! Gordon never notices women's looks. They are too sacred to him. Nothing more. They can cover the distance between Diana and Phryne at a jump. They are mere moods, and always to be construed in the present tense. You must take them as they are. That is exactly what I have not done.
It is of no use. For, being moods, they are unintelligble, and the man who tries to solve them usually comes to grief. Besides, the effort is really unnecessary. You may call it a theory of mine if you like. But I believe that it is true all the same. All that you want to know about a woman is the colour of her hair and eyes, whether she paints, how she is dressed, the texture of her gloves, and the size of her boots. Hawke shot a quick glance from beneath knitted brows at Gordon as the latter spoke; but the remark had fallen quite casually from his lips, and he appeared only bored by the discussion.
Catalog Record: A romance of Wastdale | HathiTrust Digital Library
An anchorite may theorise," Hawke replied. A woman's self is an awkward thing to tackle. It perplexes you if you begin to think about it, and the more you think, the more it perplexes you, and, consequently, the stronger the hold it seizes on you. And just because a woman's bewildering, you run the risk of ending by respecting her—and that is fatal. Lawson burst out into a hearty laugh and said, "Come along, Hawke!
That is enough lecture for to-day. You have made me laugh and bored Gordon to death. I have often noticed that! But when he comes a cropper over theories, there's an end of him for good and all. The chance remark made Gordon look towards the speaker with an active interest. Hawke's lecture, as Lawson had said, merely bored him. The views it set forth were precisely those which he had attributed to the man, and he felt so certain of the accuracy of his opinion that the actual utterance of the views sounded to him little more than a repetition.
His resolve, besides, to exact a full and speedy retribution from Hawke was mail of proof alike against the covert innuendo of the disquisition and the ironical malice which had prompted it. But these last words of Lawson seemed to him instinct with truth, and found a convincing commentary in his own experience. Lawson shook hands with Gordon and went out in the porch, with Hawke after him. The latter paused at the door to adjust the rucksack in which he carried their lunch on to his back, and shot a careless "I may see you again this evening" backwards over his shoulder, and they both passed the house and turned along the track to Black Sail.
Gordon followed them into the open air. He crossed the field in front of the farm, and climbing on to the top of a huge moss-grown mound of stones which fills an angle in the boundary wall, lit his pipe and lay in the warm sunlight watching them. He could see them for some time toiling up the side of Kirkfell into Mosedale, and every now and then he caught a flash as the sun glittered on the steel head of an ice-axe.
Mosedale forms, as it were, a recess in Wastdale, running back from the valley on the side opposite to Scafell, and the Pillar mountain makes the end wall of this recess. The Pillar Rock, however, to which Lawson and Hawke were directing their steps, projects from the further side of the mountain and lies in the northern valley of Ennerdale, and the distance between that spot and Wastdale cannot be traversed at the quickest in less than an hour.
Gordon looked at his watch; it was a quarter to ten when they passed from his sight behind the shoulder of Kirkfell, and he began to calculate the time when he might hope to meet Hawke on Mickledoor Chasm. For that was the spot which he had chosen, its bleak solitude appealing to him with a sense of appropriateness. Hawke, he reflected, would have to cross Great Gable, and the Styhead, continue in the same direction southwards along Esk-Hause, the pass to Langdale, and then turn to the right into Eskdale, which is separated from the valley of Wastdale by the barrier of the Scafell chain.
From there he would have to ascend the southern slope of the latter mountain, and Gordon reckoned that under no circumstances could he reach Mickledoor, the ridge between Scafell and Scafell Pikes, before half-past six.
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That Hawke might change his plan and return home by the way he set out did not occur to him until hours after. For the half-formed idea that he was working under destiny had grown into a living conviction. He had come to look upon himself as the tool and agent in the completion of an ordained plan.
So keen indeed had this feeling of personal irresponsibility become, that he gave no thoughts as to the details by which he was to carry out his purpose, confidently leaving occasion to direct the act. A line of Beatrice Cenci's in Shelley's play kept marching through his brain—.
In a word, he was looking across the interval of the next few hours, and dignifying as the judicial execution of a law what was in reality only the gratification of a savage lust for revenge; a distinction which he might have grasped from a certain luxurious feeling in the anticipation of it had he not abandoned his habit of self-analysis. The illusion was, moreover, very naturally strengthened by the fact that circumstances seemed strangely shaping themselves to fit in with his resolve.
The very appearance of Lawson, which Gordon had considered at first an insuperable obstacle, now showed as an additional advantage. For the couple had ascended in full view towards the Pillar, in the reverse direction to Scafell, and consequently if Hawke's body were found by the latter mountain, suspicion would be diverted from the idea of a premeditated attack. It would look as if Hawke had changed his route by chance, made the circuit of the valley, and then slipped on the cliffs at the opposite end. For Gordon reckoned that no one but Lawson and himself knew of Hawke's projected expedition, and the former, being ignorant of the hostility between the two men, would have no reason to connect him with the accident.
That Hawke had not mentioned his intentions to the Inn people seemed fairly evident from his lie about the lanthorn. Lawson, it is true, might have told them, for he borrowed it. Gordon determined to find that out. For at all costs suspicion must be diverted from himself for the sake of the girl waiting for his message fifteen miles away. He would go down to the Inn now; and besides, he recollected he had another mission to accomplish there. Gordon rose from his resting-place and had already proceeded some way in that direction when he suddenly stopped.
After a moment's thought he turned on his steps and went back to the farm. He shouted to his landlady to pack up his lunch in a parcel, and mounted to his room. The day before he had brought over such few articles as he required in a rucksack—the bag, half knapsack, half haversack, peculiar to mountaineers—and at the bottom of this lay, still folded up, an extra coat and pair of knee-breeches of the same cloth as those which he was wearing now.
He emptied the bag of its other contents and descended with it to the parlour. The landlady presently brought in the packet which he had ordered, and he placed it with his flask inside the rucksack and fastened the strings. And he slung the rucksack on to his shoulders and went down to the Inn. He inquired what time they expected Mr. Hawke back. Education events at BFI Southbank. Classroom resources for teachers. Courses, training and conferences for teachers. BFI Film Academy.
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