HENRY had for some time been tiring of the paper. He had often spoken about it to George, and at last, in March, they decided the paper should stop. George had no great wish to carry it on, though he was pleased to write for it when he chose, and no one else appeared to take Henry’s place. Towards the end of the evening when, after a meeting of the staff in Henry’s chambers, they had finally decided that the next number should be the last, George and Henry were left alone. George and Henry were left alone. George was talking about his “Dieppe,” for he was in difficulties as usual over the book.
“It’s quite true that in ‘Wilmersdorf’ the story of the girl served its purpose well enough; and though somehow it seems a pity to weigh down a pretty thing like that with a huge, cumbrous idea, I don’t see that there was any way out of it.”
“No, I don’t either. Certainly the change in the village was rather an oppressive weight for simple little Lieschen to carry!”
“Well, I sha’n’t make that mistake in my ‘Dieppe,’ for I’ve made up my mind now not to use the story of that man.”
“Oh? But I thought it would suit so perfectly?”
“No, I don’t think it would be right to use it, and I’ll tell you why. You see when Henry and I saw that man being carried off that afternoon the situation struck us as tragic. It was a good example of what I mean by the town life and the visitor’s life. We were visitors, thinking of dancing and the Casino, and come to amuse ourselves by looking at the rough sea, when suddenly we were plumped down in the middle of a town tragedy. It was a striking example. But that’s no reason for putting the history of that man into my book. Because it gave me a fresh impulse in the working out of my vision there’s no need to work it in.”
“No, perhaps not. It’s like telling people what the actual circumstances were which gave you the idea of a novel. No, I think you’re right.”
“Of course I am. And, like an idiot, I’ve been driving along all this time on the wrong road. It’s a great mistake the way people laugh at theories and principles, as if they weren’t any use; if I’d only stuck to principles I should have seen the absurdity of confounding together the case I’m describing with what I happened to see.”
“Well, the time hasn’t been lost: one must learn the right way by going all the wrong was first, apparently.”
And they talked on, evolving principles of expression.
Henry dropped the paper, and with it he ceased writing. He had grown tired of his rather scattered life in chambers and of his enthusiasms. He gave up his rooms and went back to life at home, and it seemed to him quite natural to find himself going to his father’s office—not definitely, but just to see.
He had been the first to admire George’s work, and to urge him on to write; and all along he was his confidant, leading him on, the facile, imitative friend encouraging the slow, struggling man of original feelings. Then suddenly he deserted him, and George was alone, like some great sailing-ship left at the mouth of the harbor on its way out on a grey afternoon, lonely, rocking heavily.
George, then, began his “Dieppe” again, leaving out the story of the restaurant-keeper. The difficulties seemed insurmountable, for what he wished to express in this case was something still less than personal than in “Wilmersdorf,” still more a concern of a town and its buildings. Moreover, the limit of “Wilmersdorf” was fixed, there was an obvious beginning and an obvious end—the whole story of the village lasted the life-time of one individual. But this affair of the real life of Dieppe continuing right through the year contrasted with the few weeks’ visit of strangers bent on enjoyment, and behind this obvious contrast, the failure of the town’s great venture as a port, and the continued success of the hotels and Casino, then the actual buildings in which the fishermen and the inhabitants live, the docks and cranes which the visitors never even see, contrasted with the Casino and the plage which they never leave—that was more difficult to manage.
He hardly knew how to begin, and for days he did nothing; often he could not even keep his mind fixed on the subject, until he thought he must be ill or tired. And at the moment there was no sympathetic person to whom he could turn. Sometimes he could almost have confided in Helen again; but then he felt how utterly hostile she was: and he himself began to feel like a tyrant when she sat speechless and he dilated on his difficulties. Then he knew that she was noticing his idleness, and that she found it incomprehensible, and therefore inexcusable. No, he would have to depend on himself, and when the work was done, then perhaps she would see—when people admired it.
George’s course of self-justification, and the impossibility of saying anything in answer to him in that state, coming after so many tortures, had made Helen bitter. And when she looked at herself to have had no fixed nature when she was a girl—except that she was upright and fearless, and had a longing for something clear and strong and complete. She knew that her love and her marriage had brought out all the exquisite and diviner possibilities in her, and had given her a nature strong and devoted, capable of the most wonderful efforts. But now what was she becoming? “And in this new life of George’s what is my place? Nothing; nothing for me. To be no one after having been everything! Of no account, absolutely no account. It was my life, my whole being; but now when he talks of his work, it appears to have been three years mistaken, wasted.” And when she came down to actualities, she found him idle day after day, incomprehensibly idle in the cause of his art, which was ridiculous or hateful.
And it was just at the time when she was saying to herself that she was of no use and might as well not exist, that something happened to make her add—without indignation, with no sense of being wronged therein; but rather in scorn of herself—“except…”
When the paper was started, the Bishops, the Astons, and one or two others had paid down a certain sum of money. This fund lasted only a short time, and no one paid any more. Now the account was to be settled, and it was when Helen paid her share that she made the scornful exception to her uselessness.
George at once saw the affair in a more everyday light: it struck him as unjust that Helen should have to pay for something which was entirely his business, and which she even hated. Until now the question of Helen’s money had never entered his head, and Helen even now did not think of the money actually paid.
“I’m sorry to ask you to pay this money. But it’s only a loan. Soon my work with pay for itself.”
“You know it isn’t the money I care about!”
George did not answer. He shut his eyes, and strengthened himself in the old determination to wait till he reached a height where he felt safe, and from which he could see clearly. Helen thought it unfeeling in him to keep to the minor question—so insignificant, indeed, as to be beside the point.
But when month after month passed away, and got nothing out of life, the idea gradually worked its way into her mind, and grew familiar there, that George was spending her money and giving her nothing in return. She hated himself for thinking so; but still there was the thought, a constant companion. She could no longer remain on the heights, she felt the universal need of coming down to things on the ground which can be handled.
George sense of the injustice had given him a new incentive to work.
“It’s no good trying any other kind of writing, I must go on as I’ve begun. It would be simply bad policy to leave off this particular struggle with my ‘Dieppe,’ when I’ve already spent so much time over it. Everything has to be learnt, and whatever other kind of story I might take up, I should have to go through a preliminary course—it’s no easier to write sensational novels than masterpieces.”
So he argued. But as days went on, and success did no come at once, the sense of injustice wore off somewhat.
He had not been making a fortune when he socialist; there had never been any likelihood that he would, nor was it even expected of him. He had been, as a matter of fact, living on her money then; and after all a man’s work is his own affair, it is hardly possible or right for any one to come in and make stipulations about it.
Helen’s anger at herself and contempt at her meanness, instead of being of any use to her, only made her more difficult. And when they were together, they were silent, or else everything which one of them said sounded unjust or dangerous to the other. Over and over again Helen said to herself that it was wrong to let herself go, to give way to her feeling of irritation, to be silent or unsympathetic when with an effort a kindly word could be spoken. But she could not help it, she seemed really to be growing weak, while her strength was contracting itself to obstinacy and a narrow feeling of being wronged.
And George, too, when he was alone, determined that next time they were together he would be patient, and if Helen was not yielding, he would try to be frank and human, and not put off the attempt with a show of bitterness and a resignation to misunderstanding. For when he was wearied and hopeless over his work, and gently said something about it, she could not help hinting or looking disparagement. Then once he was open and did speak frankly—
“Oh! Helen, you can have no idea how you torture me. I’m almost driven to despair by my work, and then you make it worse by misunderstanding it. My position towards you harasses me enough; but you make it heavier still.”
“But surely you don’t feel your position towards me? You surely don’t care?”
Ah! What was to be done now? She had gone off to another point and required a proof of that. For a moment he was beginning to protest; but then the bald ridicule of trying to prove such a thing in words overcame him, and he went away.
AT the end of April he saw his way through his “Dieppe” somewhat more clearly, and as the material was perfectly familiar to him, the work was finished sooner than he had expected, at the beginning of July. It was short, shorter than “Wilmersdorf.” George was pleased that it was over at last, for he felt extraordinarily tired. Helen had been growing concerned about him, he has so thin and pale.
The publisher returned the manuscript, and told Aston that it was no use bringing out the book. Although “Wilmersdorf” was talked of, and made a beginning of admiration for Aston, it had a very small sale, and he assured him that he would be able to sell perhaps a hundred copies if this were published. The general tone of his opinion was that the first joke was all right, but that one was enough.
George was astonished at the refusal. The book was certainly an advance in one way upon “Wilmersdorf.” And then for a moment it seemed to him so absurd that a man’s conscientious work should not be read. He looked at the manuscript again, and he felt that whatever heaviness there was about the work, it certainly did express an idea which could not be done any other way. And certainly the idea was worth expressing.
When this disappointment came upon him, Helen grew really afraid for his heath, and before going away to the country she insisted upon taking him to a doctor. The doctor said the usual things, that he was not to dream of working for at least two months, and that he was to go and get strong on the east coast; and he told Helen that her husband would need very careful attention.
Those two months at the seaside were a delight. George kept his promise gladly, and put away all thoughts of work, not even looking forward, but enjoying the present with a gaiety and ease which made him irresistibly charming. And Helen, struck with pity when she saw how his work and his difficulties had worn him out, used up her whole nature in devotion to him. It was quite easy, neither of them had to make any effort. They never thought of mentioning the dark struggle which they had left behind them. The regret which they each felt only appeared in the eagerness with which they took up the delightful task of being sweet to one another.
These were none of those high enthusiasms perfectly shared which had given the first years of marriage in Helen’s eyes such a transcending glory. But she was content to have George loving and gay and entertaining, like a boy freed from restraint.
At the end of the two months Helen wanted George to go on with her to Italy instead of returning to London. She knew that it was weak, but she felt as if she would give anything to keep him as he was.
“No, I must go back to London. Surely you wouldn’t keep me idle?”
“But couldn’t you work just the same if we went away together?”—so much she give in.
“No, I can work best in London. It’s the place where I’ve been most hopeful and had the finest visions, as well as the place of darkness and struggles; and indeed, both those sides of London drag me back. It’s the place for work and for everything that belongs to work.”
“Oh, I dread London so!”
“But don’t. We shall see…”
And they hardly liked to go further than that.
But Helen was right. Directly they got back to London the old life began again. He was working—the same incomprehensible, hopeless way of working, and the enthusiasm and struggle again so strong that it tyrannized over their life—exactly the same.
He had written the story of the unfortunate man whom he had seen with Henrietta Bishop fairly completely in his first draught of “Dieppe.” He now set to work upon it afresh, separating it from the “Dieppe” idea. He was sure that he felt the effect of his constant labour at those colossal subjects in the ease with which he wrote this story.
He was half way through it, when he was suddenly frightened by the thought that it was all wrong. The thing had originally struck him because of a contrast—that was really all he had seen: now he was writing the thing itself, leaving out the original reason for thinking of it all. But then he thought that after all he might as well finish it; he knew almost every word right on to the end, and there was no difficulty in his way; yes, right or wrong, he would finish it.
This book the publisher agreed to bring out. George at one time thought that he would send it to some one else. But the idea of being offended with a man who was so business-like that he persisted in looking upon George’s too conscientious work as more or less of a joke, was ridiculous.
The book appeared in March. Though admiration from any quarter flattered and pleased him, he made as light of the praise which the mass of critics gave him as he had made of their blame. “The sweep,” Monty Frere, who had made himself popular by so skillfully truckling to public opinion that every one thought he was leading it, had now arrived at absolute power, and was rapidly becoming a complete bully. And in a bullying article he praised George’s book, and George was divided between indignation and laughter as he read. Every one came round; there was hardly a dissentient voice. All the wiseacres said that it was very fine, “If only Aston always wrote like that!”
No one found it immoral, although, as George said, the book contained a fair proportion of the more heinous crimes in the calendar.
And Helen came round with the rest. She found the book perfect.
George had no particular affection for the story, and paid the less attention to what people said, because in a new work which seemed to him magnificent.
Helen gained very little from the success of George’s book. Not that she had expected any reward for once more agreeing with general opinion. She was truly glad that the book was good; but she had taken no part in its production. She had no even been present when George got the idea of the story. It was some one else who had seen the beginning and who had received the first confidence. And she had heard no more about the work until the book was published.
George had indeed, she thought, taken an easy way out of the difficulty of their life: he never was with her. It seemed to her to be now only his weakness that stood in their way. A year ago it was she who had failed to make a real effort to be gentle and sympathetic, and absolutely to put away from her the thought of being wronged. And then that thought had become definite in the question whether George had a right to give her nothing in life when he was living upon her: from that had arisen the new fear for herself, the haunting thought that ever since the return from Berlin she had been deteriorating—that she was losing all nobility of character. But now she felt stronger: it was George who had failed. He had so little strength that he would not even wait and see how easy and sweet she could be. She would have demanded nothing of him; only trying to bring back the peace and lightness of those two summer months which had passed so quickly and had apparently meant so little. All George’s strength seemed to have gone into his art. There he was inconceivably strong. But once away from his work, he had no strength of character left.
And Helen was always alone; more alone than she had ever been before. George was never with her except when some of his own friends were at the house. She disliked them all. Sometimes Helen went out with him into society; but gradually she left off even that, for she thought that he only asked her because it was necessary. He seemed not to care whom he made his confidant or whom he admired. He had left off talking about the genius and his step-daughter—that enthusiasm had, indeed, been little more than talk—and in July his new admiration was for a Mrs. Castellian, whom the had met at an “At Home”—a rich woman with pretentions—utterly uninteresting, Helen thought. Margaret’s companionship, too, was less complete than it had been, for she now had her own all-engrossing affair.
MRS. FORDE, who never stayed more than a few months in one place, had rented a large manor-house near Stratford, and asked a number of the Spencers, including Margaret and her aunt, to stay with her during the spring. They were there through April and May, and enjoyed it so much that they did not come back to London at all, except Margaret, who spent the last three weeks of June there with some friends and then returned to Stratford with Helen. George could not be persuaded to go with them. Perhaps he would come with Henry and his sister for the dance which they were giving on the fifteenth of July.
But when the time came, the Bishops arrived alone, and George wrote to say that he could not leave town and break into his work just then. His publisher was agreeing to publish “Dieppe” in the autumn, and altogether he had too much to occupy him.
It was six o’clock on the morning of the sixteenth. Margaret and Henry were still in the ball-room talking. The dance had begun late, and the sunlight had fallen through the windows upon a room full of dancers. Margaret, indeed, had arranged a late dance on purpose that the dawn might find them still dancing. She had settled that one of her pleasures should be to draw aside the curtain hanging over the open window to let the daylight in upon the burning candles and the evening dresses. She remembered how at some dances in London a few of the guests had danced on till late in the morning, and then had stayed to breakfast instead of going home. She remembered the feeling of pleasant fatigue, the fresh morning air, and the look of men in dress clothes sitting down to breakfast. The recollection was so delightful that she had set her heart on having the same pleasures on this occasion: in the country, with guests staying in the house, it would be all the easier. But people had, as a matter of fact, gone to bed before five o’clock, and only she and Henry were left. No one would have dreamed of looking after Margaret; she was a year older than Mrs. Forde, and Miss Spencer never thought of taking care of a niece who was twenty-eight.
There had been some astonishment and a good deal of vexation in Margaret Spencer’s family because the girl had not married. But as far back as ten years ago Henry Bishop had paid her attentions—enough, perhaps, to make her love him; enough, at any rate, to lead her unconsciously to keep free from any attachment. Without asking the reason why, it seemed natural that she should remain free. It is true that sometimes she had imagined the possibility of his asking her to be his wife, and then she was sure of what her answer would be; but these occasions were rare, and it did not oppress her that the question had never come. When the possibility floated across her mind it would not have agreed with her sane, well-regulated nature to let herself go. She was contented with her life as it was. Perhaps also, if she had troubled to look into her own mind closely, she would have found that something else helped her well-regulated nature to remain peaceful—namely, the belief that the question would come. As it was, this conviction existed unacknowledged.
She was sitting in a long wicker chair, with her back half turned to the window which opened on to the verandah. She had a shawl over her shoulders, and say sometimes looking at Henry Bishop standing in front of her, sometimes looking into the room, watching the dust in the sunbeams. Henry stood with his hands behind his back, looking down at the easily reclining figure before him. He appeared almost like an accused before a judge. Not that he was frightened or downcast, but merely that she looked like the person in power, sitting there undisturbed; she might have been holding in her hands the fate of the slightly bent figure standing before her. The both understood and enjoyed the significance of their relative positions, because they knew each other well. Certainly he was at a disadvantage, for she had a right to sit undisturbed. In a sense she had always been sitting there prepared to acknowledge that her mind was made up. He, meanwhile, had changed, passed through different phases, approached her, and gone away from her; he had been tormented, had fallen in love with other people, and finally found himself actually arriving at a point which he had sometimes before imagined he was nearing. And now she sat listening to him as he asked her to become his wife. He had been talking to her of herself, and this was quite new. Until now his conversation had always been of his hopes and fears, and she had hardly seemed to enter personally into the affair; she had been sympathetic and convenient. When she felt certain of what he was saying she let herself go, and acknowledged to herself how she had thirsted for this speech. She sat perfectly still, smiling, drinking in his words; now and then she glanced at him, satisfied, feeling that at last it had come, and that she was the possessor. She did not lose the sense of anything he spoke, and yet her mind was pleasurably dwelling on the past. His words and her feelings brought before her mind various times when she had talked with her; and two stages, two actual occasions, stood out clearly in the ten years. She had perhaps thought of these two phases before, but not accurately. Now they came clear and unmistakable, like two great marks set by fate along the road which her lover had been ordained to travel…
It was nine o’clock on a September evening eight years before. She and Henry Bishop was sitting on the terrace of the Casino during the interval between the first and second parts of the ball. Henry had pointed out to her how it always excited him to come out of a hot, glaring room filled with dancers, and suddenly find himself on the seashore, watching the moon just above the romantic castle on the cliff, listening to the roll of the pebbles drawn back b the receding wave. He explained that it was necessary for his appreciation of things that they should move him by their sensational contrasts. In order to pierce through a dull and sluggish nature, outside things must be sharp and striking. That was why he did not care for the country generally. He might look and look at the trees and fields in spring, but they did not move him; he could not understand them. But the end of a branch hanging over the railings of a London square gave him a real and exciting sensation of spring—and so one. “My life is empty; I have no aim.” She felt at that moment that if she gave him much encouragement he would generously offer her his empty, aimless life. But she could not. She hardly felt as if it was to her he was addressing himself more than to any one else. She happened to be there—that was her only qualification. Any other woman would have done almost as well. Not that what he said about his empty life was quite false, on the contrary, it was true to some extent; only it was irrelevant. She had an instinctive feeling that all this was not an integral part of the man’s character, it was merely part of his age. This opinion was so instinctive that she never formulated it; but she naturally acted upon it. And as she recalled this evening, other recollections of him came vividly to mind. His fits of despondency which had no cause, his sudden transitions to gaiety, the absurd things which he said to her, and for which he took the trouble to apologise afterwards (the most ridiculous of all). She had not seen the necessity for this trouble and searching of heart, and sometimes it fatigued and annoyed her. When she heard other girls speaking of these romantic ways of Henry Bishop, whether with praise or censure, she felt that they were wrong, and that she was right in leaving them alone, and in perceiving that they were not really Henry Bishop. He would get out of those ways. Though how this would happen, or whether she could help him, were questions which would never have entered her head, even if she had thought carefully and accurately on the subject, which she did not. Indeed, Henry’s need was no imperious. His character was easy, and his nature lightly composed, so that it did not drag. She remembered, too, a few occasions when he had confided to her his admiration for other women. This never made her feel jealous, it was not serious. But it generally wearied her.
Again, it was a chance meeting, four years later, one rainy February morning, in a picture-gallery in Bond Street, three months after the appearance of his paper. He explained his difficulties to her, and he talked of his stories. Again, at this moment, if she had been encouraging, he would have proposed to her. It would have been quite a simple thing—but no, it was impossible. She was not paying very close attention to his account of the plot of the next story. He asked her whether the idea was not a good one, and she answered vaguely, “Yes,” and turned her face to look at him. On his features she saw a pained expression: if they had been husband and wife, he would have said to her, “Then you don’t take any interest in my life’s work? You are not sympathetic? You are not proud being an artist’s wife?” No, that she could not have borne. Difficulties she would not have shrunk from; but that kind of difficulty was too much; it was impossible.
But now, now he was standing in front of her, and speaking of himself as loving her personally, loving her passionately. “This is no longer vague romance, this is no longer his work; but it is I, I this actual piece of flesh and blood sitting before him.” She did not trouble to interrupt him or to answer him. He needed no answer; but she smiled and kept shifting her eyes from his face to the dusty sunbeam. Fatigue from the dance and the fresh-scented morning air harmonised with her thought, and give her a still and intense joy. It was as if she were in a trance—this lassitude of body, and keenness of mind.
She was looking into the room, her eye was caught by the curtain which had taken the place of the door leaving into the hall. It moved slightly, and Miss Spencer stood in the doorway. Her aunt was an early riser, and on her way through the hall she had heard a man’s voice, so she came to see. Margaret look at her aunt, smiling and undisturbed. If the circumstances had been different she might have felt a little awkward. But now she would not have been disturbed even by a stranger. No, after all these years he was her own, and she would have no interruption. Miss Spencer looked at her niece and saw such an expression of love and satisfaction that she turned and left the room. Henry had never noticed her coming; he stood still in front of Margaret.
. . . . .
Margaret did not tell Helen at once, for now she owed more to Henry than to any one else; but a week afterwards they were talking about it. Margaret was sitting in a great, low chair, and Helen was upon a footstool at her feet.
“We’ve known each other a very long time, and I’m sure my opinion of him is right: he is settled down now.”
Then there was a short pause.
“I suppose there’s no man to be found who’s really worthy of you, Margaret—”
“Worth? Oh, I don’t know, I’ve simply sat still, I’ve never done anything. And then worthiness is such a difficult matter to decide. I don’t think George is worthy of you in one way; yet I’m sure he’s a great artist, and what portion there is of humanity in him is good and attractive.”
And as Margaret said the words, Helen looked at her and thought—Then every one is entirely taken up with their own business, and doesn’t really care about another’s misfortunes or happiness? Margaret, Margaret too has her affairs: each one for himself. “Margaret, who used to be the perpetual sympathiser, is deserting her post, and is going to fight herself now!”
The last sentence Helen spoke aloud, as she turned round and reached her right arm up to encircle her friend’s waist, stretching up to her face to touch Margaret’s. And then they both cried.
HELEN came home in August to find George much occupied. He did not wish to go away, for he would only waste his time in the country. He had seen his idol, Mrs. Castellain, a good many times, and had gone to a party at her house where he was rather made the centre of interest. He had thought perhaps Helen and he might go away to the same place as Mrs. Castellain; but when that idea fell through, and she had left town, he could not bear the thought of leaving London and interrupting the work which he had sketched out and shown to her and for which he had won great praise.
All his work had to be connected in his mind with some person. It always had been so. He had attached a corresponding sentiment for some one person to everything which was important or which moved him, even when he was quite a child. It was the same necessity which had made him as a boy think of a lady when he was leaving a place he had lived. The feeling was so subtle, that sometimes it seemed to him as if this need, and the pain at leaving belonged not only to him, but also to her: as if she were wronged by his desertion—a transference of his own feeling to another which made the sentiment doubly penetrating.
When he first saw Mrs. Castellain, she especially asked to be introduced to him. She was a tall, striking woman, exceedingly well dressed. She admired his work, and had wanted to meet him for some time. Helen was introduced, and they went to an evening party at her house in Belgrave Square. She had a grand air, and impressed George as a strict observer of an etiquette with which he was very little acquainted, a fashionable woman who did all the fashionable things, and attached importance to them. There was to George something imposing about her conversation, her occupations, her house, her carriages, her servants; and he was flattered by the attention which she paid him, and the consequence which she attached to him as a rising genius.
Helen did not understand why George found her so imposing—except that she was most striking to look it, and was a beauty of a particular type. And George’s tolerance where Mrs. Castellain was concerned simply amazed her. For instance, when she first called on the Aston’s, she praised Monty Frere. She had, as a fact, only read Aston’s last novel when she met him, and then, too, she had read all the praise, including Frere’s. Afterwards she read “Wilmersdorf,” without realizing how the book had been blamed.
“Aren’t Monty Frere’s articles delightful? Especially his weekly page: I’ve only begun to read them lately.”
“Oh, there’s no doubt he’s a very clever man.”
“I always think his criticisms show so much insight, and he’s so original, don’t you think so?”
“Yes, he certainly gets hold of strong points and puts them well. And he’s doing something in literary criticism which no one has done before him.”
“In fact, he’s one of the new men coming up with new ideas: exactly the critic who is needed for your new movement.”
And then she plunged recklessly about George’s work, and Helen was quite afraid. But George assented, and was more than diplomatic.
When she had left the house, Helen expressed astonishment at George’s tolerance.
“Well, there’s no need to go into society with a pen behind one’s ear, arguing about theories of art with every one.”
“Oh, I think you were admirable.”
George felt vexed, and answered—
“But what she said was not so devoid of sense either. There was a great deal of truth in it.”
In October, “Dieppe” appeared and again divided critics; but the party of admiration was much larger and louder than at the time of “Wilmersdorf.”
Mrs. Castellain came back to town; she had seen her husband for a few weeks at Carlsbad. He was an agent for something or other, and was generally in St. Petersburg or Rio, very seldom in London; for when he was free from work he had to go to Carlsbad to get strong again.
George called upon her and gave her a copy of “Dieppe.” Mrs. Castellain had seen at once that he was impressed by her pose, and she was flattered, all the more because she knew that she was not really fashionable, and that her distinction was a pretence. So she was pleased to act the part of initiator to this brilliant young man who was so struck by her; and she drove with him in her carriage, and lent him horses to ride, took him to first nights and introduced him to the few smart people she did know. All the time she had the air of a protector, and he was delighted to join her, and took great care to obey all the little rules which had mad her so admirable in his eyes.
At first Helen was included in her invitations. But naturally she dropped out, for she was not wanted and would not even be impressed. When George began to talk of Mrs. Castellain, she accepted her as the inevitable new idol; but when his admiration for all her ways grew irksome, she said what she thought about her, and wondered how he could be so easily satisfied with a pretentious woman. George grew angry when Helen laughed at her, and so they talked of her no more. And when George did discover that social distinction was rather a thing after which she had always been unsuccessfully striving than a merit already possessed, he only liked her the better; he could feel for her in this, and her need touched the natural kindness of his nature. He joined in her worship of social distinction warmly and sympathetically for her sake.
Some months afterwards, at the beginning of spring, George made another discovery which was most fascinating. He had always been careful to call at the proper hours, and not too often, to behave with a certain stiffness, a kind of good behaviour which was unnatural to him. But he discovered, as he came to know her better, that without making any advances herself, she did not resent little breaches of rules on his part; she never came to meet him, he had to do everything. When he found her show of impassable, irreproachable good breeding was only an exterior, the discovery was wonderful. There she was, passive, tied down by the laws of a game which she had always been trying to play properly, left with little else but immense respect for the laws, and an incapacity to live without them. And George was a source of delight to her the whole time. At the beginning it was pleasure to impress him with her way of life, then it was a new pleasure to go on and play the protector to one who was so easily satisfied, and it was a more intimate pleasure still to feel him shyly and hesitatingly taking liberties, which she herself did nothing.
It was after this discovery of his that Helen began to appear to George rigid and narrow in her frank and upright nature. The feeling came very gradually, and was at first hidden far back in his mind; and besides, he was only doing justice to this other person who had grown so important to him; it would be almost an injury to her not to make some comparison of the kind.
Mrs. Castellain had dark-brown eyes, and fair, very shiny, ashen-yellow hair, which curled upon her forehead. In the evening she wore it in a tapering roll behind, low down upon her neck. And when George came to know her well, he fancied that when they met his sometimes her brown eyes did not look quite straight, as if they showed some internal trouble. Her complexion was perfectly even, without any colour, a thick white, and her lips were hardly less pale than the rest of her face. Often in his boyhood, when he had made new acquaintances, his mother’s old friends—the original friends of his childhood—seemed to him mean and small. And just so now he felt towards Helen.
They went away in August to the same place as Mrs. Castellain, and then this new feeling of George’s, for until now it had never entered his mind to compare any one with Helen, put something into his manner with her, which made her loneliness more fearful and harassing than when she had spent those miserable weeks in Dieppe three years ago. This admiration was different from any that had gone before, there was something more personal in it which hurt her intimately, the woman seemed really to exert an influence over him. And she herself felt so helpless in a position quite out of character, a position in which all the fine qualities of her nature were useless.
But some months after their return to town, the fear came upon her that George would grow quite apart, irretrievably apart, from her. And she began to think of little things that she had barely noticed before. He went with Mrs. Castellain to theatres and concerts, never with her: he always had time to give to Mrs. Castellain. When George thought of Helen he said to himself, when was perfectly true, that she did not care for entertainments. And if by chance he noticed how perpetually he left her alone, he thought, “It’s no pleasure for us to be together, we only irritate each other.” And so he shut his eyes and occupied himself with his work and Mrs. Castellain.
Helen could always see in George the man who had given her those gorgeous years, the one great thing in her life, and the sweet companion of two years ago. She spent three months of anguish at the beginning of the year, seeing whether she really was nothing to him. She was infinitely gentle and devoted, and during the short times that she was with him, she spent herself in efforts to gain from him the least sign that she still had a place in his heart. But George did not notice her clearly, he was so deep in his work; his thoughts, too, were full of this other person, and the comparison between the two had grown bolder. As weeks passed on the little things she said to him became shorter and shorter, as if she had hardly breath enough left to say much. Sometimes she would come into the room where he was working, bring him flowers, sit down facing him, and tell him about her walk or about a friend from whom she had received a letter, knowing all the time that the pretty things she said to him were not interesting; yet unable to reach to anything which could touch him, though her heart was breaking. And as she grew more and ore hopeless, she felt as if she were losing all sense, the minute tender speeches which she hardly had the heart to whisper to him seemed to have no meaning as they were spoken. Indeed to George, who was strong and occupied, these little tragic things which she said to him seemed to be fatuous. And she felt that she was losing all her tact, that she was going on when she knew that she was no wanted, as if she were becoming mad.
Then she was seized by a senseless panic fear, she could think of nothing, she had no longer any sense of proportion, terror rushed through her mind, she had no power to stop its course, for there was no actual fear to catch sight of, simply a terrible whirl.
Then came a long period of weariness without any clear thoughts: and then a gradual change into a fixed hopelessness, as if the bitter waters of the last agony had had some hardening, petrifying influence upon her heart.
A YEAR passed away. During that time a resolution had formed itself and grown strong inside Helen’s mind. Every change that she had gone through, since that visit to Berlin, had come upon her very, very slowly. Each difficulty began by being incomprehensible, and it was only after a long period, occupied by a kind of struggle which was out of her character, that she gradually came to any view of her position. And then, to get over her astonishment and incapacity, and go on from comprehension to forma resolution required another period. Helen was now as slow moving in her own cause as before she had been quick to meet, nay, forestall, any demand upon her sympathy.
She had resolved to leave him. Often before, in the moments of her worst affliction, an unreasoning longing had come upon her to go away, to get away anywhere, away from her surroundings, not with any purpose; simply the desire to go—the desire of all hopeless people. But now this was different; a reasoned, well-considered determination to leave him. And she found some comfort and peace in thinking of this; it would be a certain step, and the only thing left to do. The extreme wild pain which she might have felt did not come upon her: the possibilities of that seemed to have been beaten out of her cruelly and sternly bit by bit. There was only a dull, heavy feeling in her heart when she thought of her departure.
The growth of her resolve and all the accompanying thoughts had been quite her own; she and George had lived so far apart during that time that really she had not considered what he might feel. She would leave him a share of the money—she had arranged all the details in her mind calmly and reasonably. There was no need to wait for any particular opportunity; it was the whole situation which she could not bear. When everything was settled she would tell him. She wondered sometimes how he explained her staying at all, since he showed so little tenderness for her.
One evening in March she determined that the next day she would tell him. She sat in her room soon after breakfast next morning, wondering how she should begin; for though she had thought out again and again what to say, the words of the first sentence had never been decided, and she was angry with herself when she thought that such a thing had to be decided—he was merely to be told. It crossed her mind for an instant that she might say, to begin with, that she was going on a visit, which indeed she might well do. But immediately afterwards she resented the idea. She had come low enough already, bit by bit, in her own estimation; but she would not sink quite to that level of conjugal morality. How terrible it had been, the long struggle which had ruined her high character! How utterly miserable and iron and hopeless and degraded it all was!
As she stood outside his study door, and was going to knock, the picture of herself entering the room flashed before her eyes. For a moment that unnerved her, and she paused. “Why have such things to be explained and done out at length? Why must it all be spoken and acted? Simply the time has come for going, both see it, then they part; but why this actually entering the room, these words?” Then vividly she pictured him sitting inside, wrapped in his work, not dreaming of her, perhaps in his favourite position: the right hand, with the pen in the fingers, on the edge of the table, the other hand touching his left temple, with the elbow resting on the arm of his chair, knowing, as he had explained once, quite well what the next sentence was to be, but purposely not writing it in order to enjoy the feeling of certainty. Or else listlessly idle. He confessed that when he was in difficulties he was generally too lazy to take a piece of paper and write down words as they came into his head, so as to make sure of keeping his attention fixed upon the difficulty, and he was too weak to do something different, go out, talk, or read—he could not help sitting on weakly before his table. Then she thought of Mrs. Castellain—he was not merely a workman, and she knocked.
George had just seen something which illustrated his next point, and to make sure of retaining his vision, he repeated to himself three or four words before he said “Come in.” He never minded an interruption when his work was going well, when he saw clearly what was coming next.
Only when she entered the light room, and faced him sitting at his table, did she understand how entirely secret and her own the growth of her resolve had been, and even the thoughts which had swayed her mind long before.
She was struck also by finding him at work. It flashed through her mind that any time would have been a better opportunity. But a feeling that this was false came immediately afterwards. The wish for an opportunity, she knew, was unreasonable; none was needed for what she had to say. For all that, she felt weak; it had seemed simple, and really was simple—just an understanding and it would be over.
“I’ve come to tell you that I’ve at last made up my mind—you can’t be astonished.”
At her appearance and her words George jumped to the conclusion; he thought immediately, though uncertainly—“Mrs. Castellain! she’s going to leave me!”
A black general sorrow came upon him, and he stood up from his chair just as she sat down; he could not say “What do you mean?” He could speak nothing but her same—“Hellen—”
Suddenly she felt as if something broke, and then the sense of all her wrongs rushed into her mind, the actual ways in which he had wronged her, as she had never seen them before, as if there had been no great difficulty; but simply he had wantonly ill-used her, hit her again and again. Suddenly she was angry, in a passion, at the end of everything, impotent. She hardly recognised herself: there even seemed to be a part of herself remained below the passionate words, looking on.
“It isn’t now as it was that other time. You’ve not only neglected me, made me utterly miserable—treating me all the worse because you won’t confess how much you owe to me; but you’ve insulted me cruelly and at every moment. You are her lover, and her name is on your lips whenever you speak, though you don’t say it; her picture is in your eyes whenever you look. And you’ve done it all gaily, as if it were your right. You’ve hardly taken the trouble to be ordinarily decent. You allowed me to cringe to you, and you didn’t even pretend. It wasn’t worth your while to make a show. Why would you? And of course you didn’t say, ‘Go, I love this other woman, I don’t want you,’ because you do want me. And what possible excuse is there for you? If she had been a woman with extraordinary qualities, I should have felt that she was more worthy of your love than I. But I haven’t even that comfort. You simply were infatuated with her because she was rich; yet you are contented to take from me all your want—It is impossible, impossible!”
And she broke down into passionate crying, all the more wildly because she was coming back from her passion to herself again, with anger against her weakness.
George was not touched as he looked every now and then at the figure of his wife, her hands tightly clasped behind her head, and pulling away from each other, and her eyes fixed in front of her. Only darkness and hopelessness in front of him, with a picture of the other person in the distance, a thing of the past, gone; a thing to be regretted, to be regretted with pain and yearning and anger; but gone. His business was here, with the woman in front of him. He could say nothing except—
“I’m not her lover.”
There was a pause. Then her arms fell into her lap.
“Look what you’ve made of me. Look what I’ve become. I, Helen Lemardelay, Helen Aston, the woman who was proud, not vainly proud; but because she had high aims, and beliefs that were broader and clearer than those of ordinary people—I’ve become as small and mean and blind as any one else. Your answer is an answer to my reproach of infidelity! I’m jealous, I’ve talked of money, I’m brought as low as can be. There have been moments lately when I’ve thought of proofs, although I’ve been neglected for years, and my company is plainly no longer anything but a burden. Proofs,” she said again to herself, as if she could not measure the depth of her degradation. Then, with utter despair in her voice she went on—
“And nothing can cover that! If the greatest miracle were to happen, it could never touch that; I’ve thought it, and spoken it, and done it; it’s there for ever.”
And she slipped down and knelt on the ground with her face buried in her hands on the chair.
So far was George from understanding that he thought her jealousy and sense of injustice quite natural. But thought he did not understand, her words and gestures made him feel the greatness of her agony. He stood silent and hopeless.
Helen stood up from her kneeling position, and put her hand out in front of her, as if to make a division between her passion and what she was going to say now.
“That’s all unnecessary, and my fault only.”
And sitting down, she went on slowly and softly—
“I’ve made up my mind to go because it’s the only thing left to do. I’m no use here. I’ve been very, very long finding it out…. I’ll only take with me what’s necessary, the rest I’ll leave with you.” She stopped, and her lip quivered, and a mournful smile came into her face as she stretched forward her open right hand upon her knee, deprecatingly, as if to ask for forgiveness—for there was no thought of bitterness in her mind when she said the words. Then she went on speaking.
But George was paying no attention. He had not got beyond the terrible idea of her leaving him. He had kept his eyes willfully closed, going on from day to day, and now at last they had been opened. He felt utterly miserable. There had been little pauses in her speech, but he could not bring himself to say anything: a dull anger at everything prevented any words from coming to his lips. Only it was impossible that they should part.
She got up, and made a movement as if to go. His fear broke upon him decisively, and he came up to her and spoke at last.
“Helen, you can’t leave me!” And he went on, without letting her speak. It was his turn to be passionate, to plead despairingly.
“Helen, you mustn’t leave me! If you know, you would see how impossible it is. You don’t understand how I’ve gone from day to day without thinking. Can’t you forgive me enough to let me try again?”
Helen was astonished; and looking at him she said—
“But you’re wrong; I’m sure you’re wrong. This is only what you feel at the moment. You are grieved at seeing me like this. I know you’re incapable of being unkind when you see me; but it’s a mistake to think that it’s more than kindness.”
“But it’s not pity that I feel! It’s not at all that.”
And truly neither pity nor tenderness for her seemed to him to be in his mind; but only despair that their difference should become hopeless—end in a way which he had never meant and had refused to foresee. What could he say to convince her? He felt as if he were breaking himself against a rock, so just must her resolve seem in her own eyes.
“Don’t throw me aside! Don’t let it be so utterly hopeless! You can’t surely say the final word now? You can’t end it all now suddenly and leave me no chance?”
“I must go away; the resolve has grown up so slowly that it is fixed.”
“But won’t you let me follow you? You must! You haven’t the right—surely it’s impossible to end everything of your own accord, by yourself, and leave me no hope? And indeed you don’t understand—you are wrong. I don’t mean about Mrs. Castellain, but altogether. I can say nothing when you tell me how horribly I’ve wronged you; but it was not intentional—I went on, weakly.”
He knew that he could not express himself, for he only felt an incomprehensible despair.
“But it’s just your unconsciousness which made it hopeless.”
“No; you must believe me in this. Unless you cannot bear me near you, you must believe me and wait and see!”
“I’m so weary!”
“But I won’t trouble you. I only want to be there—not out of reach. Tell me that I may stay with you—tell me quickly. Indeed, Helen, I couldn’t live on without hope!”
There was such despair in George’s voice and look, the agony was so terrifying, that Helen could not refuse him. He might follow her if he wished.
During the rest of the day they spoke little to each other. They were both worn out—weak, so that they could hardly walk.
That night Helen woke up with no memory of her interview with George. She was back with the thoughts of the last months—the resolve to leave him. Her thoughts led her to George, and the last time they had spoken to each other. Then she remembered that he had not left the house that evening, but had gone to his bedroom when she went to hers. Then it came back to her that they were not going to part, and she remembered how the day had been spent. But it seemed to her as if the thoughts with which she had awaked from sleep were really the truth. This new thing could make no difference. Perhaps he would not follow her. Even if he did, what could he do? And she had a dread of beginning the old life over again. She had slowly formed her resolution to go, and now it had come to nothing: she had allowed that they might begin again, although a hundred times she had said to herself that it was impossible. She could not have refused him. But she was going away: that would give her time to think—give them both time. He might not join her; but if he did she could not object. She was troubled by her thoughts; but when she was alone and away from him she would have peace, and time to understand what now only seemed to her confusion—breaking up her resolutions and her views.
WHEN Helen started oft in the evening of the next day, George could hardly bear to let her go out of his sight. Yet his stay in London after her departure was an arrangement which suited them both. Helen had never foreseen the possibility of such despair as George had shown at the idea of a separation, and even now she could not understand his state of mind. The despair had been most tragically real and earnest; but she still thought at times that it was only for the moment. That was the only way in which she could explain it, and a separation of some weeks might show whether she was right or not. Moreover, even if she were wrong, it would be well not to begin their life again immediately after that interview which had left them both so unnaturally weary, a sudden struggle of strained personal contact after long estrangement.
George had another reason for staying in London. He wished to say good-bye to Mrs. Castellain, and not wrong her by deserting her suddenly and without explanation. As usual, his pain transferred itself largely to her account. It was as if some tormenting spirit, who knew well that man prides himself on his humanity, determined to throw his weight on the wrong side, and suggest to George that he could not comfort himself by saying, “This grief is only my own, and as it affects no on else, I can deal hardly with myself, and not shrink from the pain of breaking with her.” But George knew this habit of his so well, that although he was troubled by it as usual, he began to be sceptical.
When he told Mrs. Castellain that Helen had long wanted a change, and had already left London, and that he would follow in two or three weeks, her behaviour did not change in the least. George said nothing pressing enough to make her reveal herself, and he could not tell how much she guessed or what she felt. The two had never talked of Helen, and Mrs. Castellain had put her out of her head, seeing no reason for troubling herself about her, especially as she herself had sat still and every advance in intimacy had come from George. He paid her two visits, and found without intention he had dropped back into the first habit of calling only on her day, when other people were there, and behaving like an admiring stranger. This was exactly the position which he wished to regain: all the same, the change was anguish to him.
His feelings, during the three weeks which he spent after Helen had left, were utterly dreary and black. The prospect of his life with Helen was not a source of cheerfulness. It was a certainty. He had never really wavered; but rejoining her seemed hardly more than a heavy way of continuing life, for what he had said to Helen was true enough—he could not have lived on if parting had been final; and his despair at the idea of breaking with her for ever had been wild as the parting of two lovers through some mistake. Yet at times, when he was less tormented b the painful regret at deserting Mrs. Castellain, and by a general anger against fate because the whole thing had been a mistake, when he got back for a short space to a clearer view, the certainty of his next step was a comfort—not an easy or attractive comfort, but yet well founded. Then for moments he would wonder why he had persisted in begging his wife to let him follow her. Why should he have felt so strongly the impossibility of parting? But he forgot the question in the overwhelming flood of feeling which was always urging him not to lose her. His entire being was for joining her.
He received two letters from Helen, with nothing in them except a few words describing the place in which she was staying. Ever since she had spent a spring in Italy with her mother, when she was fifteen years old, she had wished to go there again. And now in a strange manner the fulfilment of her wish was a distinct pleasure—it was the only thing which found its way into her short letters to her husband. She was staying in the same lodgings as before. The house was kept by an old Scotchwoman, who had been nurse and housekeeper to an English family living in the town. When the family broke up, she had settled in this little house. Helen said that the old woman was delighted to see her again.
As the month drew to a close, George grew more and more impatient to leave London and find himself with Helen. The longer he stayed behind, the more he saw how little there was to be gained by staying, and the more pleasure he took in thinking of his determination to start afresh. It pleased him, because it seemed to show that he was growing older and more able to defend himself against attacks of the moment: though sometimes he shrank from the contemplation, and grew hopeless, and this was when he thought actually of Helen, instead of the whole determination and plan of life apart from detail.
At last he was off, three days sooner than he had intended. He travelled straight on. Every now and then he tried to reason himself out of his excitement at the prospect of seeing Helen; but he only grew more excited as the distance between them lessened.
He had made a mistake about the train; Helen would not be at the station. He left his luggage, and started through the town. He had so little appreciation for anything which was unfamiliar, that he habitually hurried when he was in a strange place. He noticed the square white houses in the important streets, and the look of the black print on the white walls, the peculiar shape of the letters at street corners. He now and then asked the way, simply speaking the address, and he was shown the road which he felt would have taken of his own accord. At the end of the town the street went up hill, a kind of faubourg, with fine villas on each side, and after the last houses there came a wood. The road mounted straight up—one of those roads which inevitably lead up to a view of the sea—and Helen lived on the other side. George could hardly help running to get over the last twenty yards to the top. Then he saw a square piece of the sea at the bottom of the road, very blue, cut off by the trees which grew thickly on either side. He walked more slowly down hill. When he came to the bottom, he found that he was still some distance from the sea, and the road turned and ran straight for about half a mile to a small cluster of houses. He walked on, still trying not to be excited. The house where Helen was staying was called Paisley Lodge, and he found it just in the natural place. He went up to it, his hand trembling and his heart beating; then he crossed the threshold, and saw Helen’s ulster hanging up, and her umbrella in the corner. He pushed open the door of the sitting-room on his left hand, and there was Helen’s writing-case on the table, and other things of hers met his eye at once, and moved him so that he could have shouted. It seemed as if there was such an air of Helen in the room, that he would have recognised it as hers without the help of these objects which he knew. Helen had evidently gone out; it was still early in the morning—only half-past nine. George turned to follow her, as if he knew which way she had gone. A little Italian servant-girl, coming in at the door, met him, and called at once for Mrs. Gutherie, who appeared from the back of the house. George was glad when he saw the Scotchwoman.
“Mrs. Aston—Miss Lemardelay, as I knew her, she added—“is gone out, sir. She did not expect you till this evening.”
“No; I made a mistake when I wrote. I’ll go out and find her.”
Mrs. Gutherie went with him into the road, and pointed in the direction which Helen had taken. It was up the road down from which he’d come.
“You will see a path, sir, on your left hand, when you are half-way up among the trees. I think she went there, for I know it’s a favourite place of hers.”
George walked up the hill, noticing each thing more closely as he passed. He found the path leading off the road, and went into the wood out of the sun. He walked slowly and softly among the trees. If he had been sure Helen was not there, he would have called out her name; but he stopped his mouth and crept about slowly, knowing that at any turn he might see her. And there she was! On his left there was a break in the wood and a view over the sea, and she was sitting in the shade of a tree, on the grass among the anemones.
She saw him almost at once, and she held out her right hand without moving from her position, looking at him with a smile on her face, until he reached her; then she dropped her hand upon the grass, and he lay down by her side. As soon as he was there looking at her, directly she spoke, the romance of that morning had gone. There was once more only the difficulty.
“You’ve found me out.”
“Yes; more by instinct, it seems to me, than by the directions I was given.”
“So you came all the way without stopping?”
“Yes. I made a mistake about the train; I thought it came in twelve hours later than it really did.”
And except what Helen told him of the places which she had visited during her stay, that was all the conversation they ever had about the past.
For the first two or three days they went about behaving like children who have both been punished for some common misdeed; drawn more closely together by the punishment, yet not sympathetic and warm, because they fear is still upon them, and they cannot speak of it to each other.
The difficulty had never been out of Helen’s mind, and immediately George joined her it became menacing. But after she had gone through the first day, she determined that she would not be oppressed by it. During the month which she had spent alone, she had tried to collect herself. Perhaps he would not come; at any rate, she would expect nothing, ask nothing. She would try and break herself of that entire dependence upon their common life, which had brought her only disappointment, and left her with no life of her own. She would be easier; not that she would draw back now, or put any difficulties in George’s way—she was incapable of attempting such a thing—but she was determined to try, at all events, to be less intensely harassed by the want of sympathy which she would feel. But just this behaviour in Helen troubled George. Often during the first few days, after they had been out for a walk, talking disjointedly just about occurrences of the moment, both a little tired and at a loss, she wished that Helen would come to meet him, show a keener need for his company, be less unattached and indisposed to make demands on upon him. As it was, he had to strengthen himself coldly by remembering how firmly he had resolved to make up for his past neglect of Helen, and such conscientious, inhuman dealing was out of character. Something he wanted to come from her which would make his part easier, some warmth and sympathy which would remove the difficulty and bring them close together. But they had travelled on diverging roads for so many years, and there was no point of contact to be found in the past.
When they first fell in love with each other, they had needed nothing to bring them together, and Helen wondered why they could find no true intimacy now, why she felt constrained and tired, and sometimes anxious now that she was with him all day long. She felt uncomfortable that he should always be at her service, that he should have no occupation but to be with her. That which had been natural in the first days of their love seemed abnormal now.
One evening they both sat down at the table to write letters. George finished his, and, after sitting still a few minutes, he went out of the room and came back with a packet of papers in his hand. The shape was familiar to Helen; he always wrote on the same paper, folded the same way. She had a sudden feeling of relief. While writing her third letter, she watched him. He read the first two or three pages very carefully, then the following pages more and more quickly, and at last he only turned them over, till he reached the place where the writing stopped; and then he turned back and read some few pages before; and then he looked at the loose sheets, which he had put beside him when he sat down, on which she could see scribbled notes. Her heart grew lighter as she looked at him. She thought of the three stories which he had published since his “Dieppe.” She had liked one better than the other. The last, “A Lady Novelist,” she remembered especially; it had appeared four months ago, and she thought it magnificent. She read it in the midst of her sorrow, and its very magnificence seemed to make her own life only more hopeless. She wrote a fourth letter—she felt an inclination to talk to her friends—she could have written endless letters.
The evening wore on; their eyes seldom met; George only saw that she was always writing a letter. At last she laid down her pen, and looked fixedly at George. He was writing, but was sitting still with his head on his hand. Suddenly he laughed, half to himself, without opening his mouth, as a man laughs over a book when some one else is in the room. An impulse came upon her; she laughed too, aloud. He looked up astonished; and she was kneeling at his side, with her right hand on his, and her left stretching up to his shoulder. She said eagerly—
“Do you think it can be better than ‘A Lady Novelist?’”
* * * * *
“But I won’t be extravagant in my hopes,” she said to herself when she was alone. “I will let things take their course.” And she wondered over the trouble of the last six years. How had it come about! What had she been struggling for? And was outside opinion, after all, the source of the whole difficulty? If her husband’s work was not disgraceful in the eyes of the world, if it won him praise and honour, was that all a woman thought of? But she would not puzzle over the past.
“I have grown older” she thought, and with those words in her head she fell asleep.
YEARS passed away. Helen and George travelled about, sometimes staying in London for a few months, but with no fixed home. They settled down at last in London, and in Kensington. The High Street had changed a great deal, there was no sign left of the Lemardelay’s old house; but Kensington Square, except for one or two red-brick buildings, which to George’s disgust had taken the place of the simple old houses, was the same, and there they lived.
George’s writing had gone on steadily. He had long passed the stage of development when he had needed a sympathetic listener for his theories: he had become a regular workman. And he might be idle for as many weeks as he liked; no one would have dreamed of questioning his right, for he was a great novelist. His first volume of stories was republished. He made a few alterations here and there, chiefly omissions, but he saw very little that wanted changing, they seemed to him astonishingly good. Some had forgotten and some had never known the adverse criticism which the book had roused, and everybody admired it. Many of his most distinctive good qualities came out in these stories. He himself was pleased and astonished to see how fearless he had been, unconsciously putting down exactly what he meant as well as he could, without any thought of what people would say.
He knew that he had a fund of material still to be used; but it was comforting to feel that he had the right to look back and say to himself that even if he wrote no more he had done enough. Overwhelming success had taken the difficulties from his life and left it narrow and calm, and he was free to look at his wife and honour her for her strength. And Helen was filled with endless admiration for his work and pride in his success, finding life easy and occupation everywhere, knowing too, when girls came to her with their insatiable thirst for the most subtle, untiring sympathy, that there was something else in life which they did not understand—a still contentment, a feeling of satisfaction that the road lies straight and clear before the eyes.
There was only one thing in George’s life besides his work—his relation to Helen, their capacity for living together, which at the end of all trials had come out a sure fact. And as this was so, Helen was satisfied to see George gradually win for himself the sublime right of treating everything outside his work and his relation to her as if it had been part of some extravagant burlesque in which he happened to be acting.
The set of more or less distinguished men and women to which the Astons belonged was collected together as usual one evening at the house of a successful portrait painter, Ramsay. His friends had been laughingly asking Aston which side he took in a newspaper discussion about some point in his work.
“Why couldn’t it all have come sooner?” he complained. “Why couldn’t I have had my portrait in the papers and been boomed when I was still young and sentimental enough to want to make personal capital out of my fame? Who cares now? My work, of course, is always there, a pleasure in itself, and outside praise doesn’t add very much to the pleasure; but why couldn’t I have been famous when it would have been a joy for me to walk with a halo round my head? I had dreams when I was a boy of marching through the streets at the head of conquering troops—heaven knows what troops!—but troops, with everybody shouting, and ladies waving handkerchiefs from the balconies. Why couldn’t I have had my conquering troops up the High Street then, when I should have enjoyed the balconies, instead of having my portrait and a sketch of my life, and correspondence about the moral teaching in the characters of my women, in the papers now, when my time is spent between my own room, and the close circle of my intimate friends?”
When the jokes and comments upon his complaint had subsided, Mrs. Ramsay said—
“Well, Mr. Aston, at the school which my niece has just left, there was a society called the ‘Astonians’—of course you’ve never heard of them. Margery was made the high-priestess because she was the only one who had ever been in the same room with you, moreover, she had stolen my copy of ‘Love’s Highway’ with your autograph in it. They all used to have photographs of you pinned inside their desks. I must introduce you to Margery; for complete adoration…”
A fortnight later the girl was introduced to her idol. When the visit was over, Margery was angry with herself because she had said nothing. She had taken off her glove to shake hands with him, and she had brought him his cup, though she trembled so much that she had to hold it with both hands, and then she had to sit silent, hardly daring to look at him. He was not quite as she had expected; but, of course, he was perfect as he was. She had thought his hair was quite black, and that he was younger looking, and yet when she met him she recognised the man who she had seen two years before. In between, rather a different idea of him had grown up; but that was quite a school-girl’s romance, and she was ashamed of herself. It was much better that his dark hair should be turning grey, and that there should be deep lines on his face, marks set by sorrow, and fierce passions lived through. Yes, he was perfect as he was. And he had asked her to come with her aunt and see him.
Soon afterwards she went to see him in his own house, she even went into his study. She had fancied a room curiously and richly furnished, filled with wonderful books, and she found a big, bare room, with no carpet, a large writing-table with a few papers on it, two or three chairs, a second table, and on the walls some drawings, and a row of books, chiefly in paper covers. She again felt ashamed of her school-girl ideas. She could not help being surprised, too, that a man whose novels were so serious and passionate should talk of everything in such a light, amused fashion. Helen she thought simply divine, she had always heard her admired, and her expectations were not disappointed: she stood such a fine figure beside her husband; indeed, she must be a marvellous woman to be the companion of such a man.
She could not help wondering whether she had made any effect on him, though she was horrified at her audacity in thinking of such a thing: simply to see him was all she could wish for—and to shake hands!… She imagined that he had noticed her, that he was pleased to talk to her, and had found her pretty. It was wonderful; she longed to let everyone know that she had visited him in his house. Perhaps at some party (she was just coming out), where there were crowds of people, he would come and talk to her!
One afternoon, a few days later, Mr. and Mrs. Aston were calling on Mrs. Ramsay. No one else was in the room except the lady of the house and Margery. The girl was marvelling at heaven’s peculiar flavour; she was allowed to see the great man so close, she was treated as if she had a perfect right to be one of such a party, one of four friends sitting and chatting. She had said very little, but soon the conversation turned upon her, and George said he remembered quite well seeing her there two years before—
“Only then you had your hair down. You don’t mind my reminding you of this? It isn’t so bad as when your friends remarked how you’d grown, is it? Of course it’s very wonderful to put your hair up; but don’t girls ever remember how pretty they looked when it was down?”
“Shall I let it down for you?” Margery said, smiling and her cheeks—and her hat was on her lap with pins in it, and her hands up to her head, and in a second her hair came tumbling wavy and golden over her shoulders.
“Yes, that’s how you looked. How charming of you to let your curls rest as they used to.”
For a moment Margery had felt terribly afraid at her boldness as she sat looking at Aston; but his words and his smile put her directly at her ease, and everybody talked and laughed so prettily afterwards that she became intensely happy; and when the Astons left, Helen kissed her. Margery could not express her gratitude to her aunt, she had never spent such a gorgeous afternoon.
They met frequently, and George transported her to heaven by always speaking to her and making much of her. He even wrote a preface to some of her poems and had them published. On the appearance of the volume a critic remarked that all great writers, when they grew old, had taken to protecting impossible young verse-makers; the signs of old age had come unexpectedly upon Aston. One of his friends asked him what possessed him to introduce such drivel into the world.
“If a line of it isn’t meaninglessly commonplace, the reason simply is that this silly school-girl hasn’t been able to reach her usual level.”
“Of course they’re commonplace, that’s just what’s so delicious about them. It’s delightful to think of this sweet child sitting down, dipping her pen in the ink, and writing these verses—how extraordinarily dull and stupid people are!”
When the summer holidays came, Margery had to go to some German baths with her family. She was in despair at the thought of missing George’s society. She could not conceive how it was that people were allowed to take away from her the whole joy of her life like that, for two months. No one could comfort her. George received a long letter from her, written the day she left. He answered it and then he heard no more from her.
At the end of September Helen told George that she had just received a note from Mrs. Ramsay, saying that her niece was engaged to be married. At Kissingen they had made the acquaintance of a young fellow, Vincent Dalgleish, who had just left Sandhurst, and after a little more than a month they were engaged. Everybody had been very much shocked, and Mrs. Poole declared she would not consider it a formal engagement. The young man excused himself by saying that he had to go to Ireland, and he wanted to make sure first.
“Well, these young people are sudden. I hope he’s a good fellow—but why didn’t she write and tell us all about it?”
He sat silent for a moment, and then broke out laughing—
“I know why she didn’t write! She was shy because she’d thrown me over! Really these girls are charming. She has found the genuine article now! She isn’t much like the rest of her family, is she?”
“A little like Mrs. Ramsay; don’t you think so?”
“Yes, perhaps she is. Of course the Ramsays are coming to dinner this evening, aren’t they? And who else is coming?”