Mufti/Chapter 16

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When Joan woke the next morning it was with the consciousness that something had happened. And then the events of the last night flashed over her mind, and for a while she lay very still. The details seemed all hazy and blurred; only the main fact stood out clear and dominant, the fact that she had gone to his room.

After that things got a bit confused. She had a recollection of being carried in his arms, of his bending over her and whispering "Little Joan," of his kissing her--but it all seemed merged in an exquisite dream.

"Oh! my dear," she whispered, while the love-light shone in her grey eyes; "but what a dear you are. . . ."

By the very nature of things she was incapable of realising the tremendous strain to which she had subjected him; it only seemed to her that there was a new and wonderful secret to share with him. And to the girl, still under the influence of her mood of the night before, the secret forged the final link in the chain. She wondered how she could ever have hesitated; it all seemed so very easy and obvious now.

Baxter, Blandford--what did anything matter? She had gone to Derek; the matter was decided. . . .

Her maid came into the room, and advanced cautiously to the bed.

"Ah! but Mam'selle es awake," she said. "And ze tea, mon Dieu, but it es quite cold."

"What time is it, Celeste?" asked Joan.

"Nine o'clock, Mam'selle. I have ze dejeuner outside. And a note from M'sieur le Capitaine." She held out an envelope to Joan, and busied herself about the room. "Ah! but he is gentil--M'sieur le Capitaine; young and of a great air." Celeste, it may be stated, viewed Baxter rather like a noisome insect.

"Bring me my breakfast, please."

Joan waited till the maid had left the room before opening the envelope. There was just a line inside, and her eyes grew very tender as she read the words.

"I've got something to say to you, little Joan, which has got to be said in the big spaces. Will you come out with me this morning on to the Downs?"

She read it through half a dozen times and then she turned to Celeste.

"Tell Captain Vane that I will be ready in an hour," she said.

     *      *      *      *      *      *

Vane was standing in the hall when Joan appeared. A faintly tremulous smile was on her lips, but she came steadily up to him and held out both her hands.

"Good morning, my lady," he said gently. "Would you to be liking to know how wonderful you look?"

"Oh! Derek," she whispered. "My dear!"

"Ostensibly you are going into Lewes to shop," he remarked with a grin. "I am dealing with Boche prisoners. . . . At least that's what I told our worthy host over the kidneys at breakfast. . . ."

She gave a little happy laugh. "And in reality?"

"We're both going to be dropped somewhere, and we're going to tell the car to run away and play, while we walk home over the Downs."

"And my shopping?"

"You couldn't find anything you wanted."

"And your prisoners?"

"Well the only thing about my prisoners that is likely to give the show away is if I turn up at the prison," smiled Vane. "Let us hope Mr. Sutton doesn't know the governor."

And suddenly he added irrelevantly. "Our host was a little surprised that you failed to appear at breakfast, seeing how early he packed you off to bed." He watched the slight quickening of her breath, the faint colour dyeing her cheeks, and suddenly the resolution he had made seemed singularly futile. Then with a big effort he took hold of himself, and for greater safety put both his hands in his pockets. "I think," he remarked quietly, "you'd better go and get ready. The car will be round in a moment. . . ."

Without a word she left him and went upstairs to her room, while Vane strolled to the front door. The car was just coming out of the garage, and he nodded to the chauffeur.

"Glorious day, isn't it?"

"Pity you've got to waste it, sir, over them prisoners," said the man.

"Yes," agreed Vane thoughtfully. "I'll want you to drop me in the town, and then I'll walk back over the Downs. . . . Splendid day for a walk. . . ." He turned and found Joan beside him. "And lightning performance," he smiled at her. "I won't be a moment."

He slipped on his coat and handed her into the car. "Drop me in the High Street, will you--opposite to the Post Office?" he said to the chauffeur. "I'm expecting a letter."

"I'm afraid," she said, as the car rolled down the drive, "that like most men you're rather prone to overact." With a little, happy laugh she snuggled up to him and slid her hand into his under the rug.

"I shall be walking home, thank you, Thomas," said Joan as she got out of the car, and the man stood waiting for orders.

He touched his cap, and they stood watching the car go down the High Street. Then she turned to Vane.

"You'd better see about your letters," she said demurely. "And then we might go over the Castle. There is a most wonderful collection of oleographic paleographs brought over by the Americans when they discovered England. . . ."

"In one second," threatened Vane, "I shall kiss you. And I don't know that they'd understand it here. . . ."

"They'd think we were movie actors," she gurgled, falling into step beside him. "Do you know the way?"

"In the days of my unregenerate youth I went to the races here," he answered. "One passes a prison or something. Anyway, does it matter?"

She gave a sigh of utter contentment. "Nothing matters, my man- nothing at all--except that I'm with you. Only I want to get out into the open, with the fresh wind blowing on my face--and I want to sing for the joy of it. . . . Do you think if we sang up the town here they'd give me pennies?"

"More probably lock us up as undesirable vagrants," laughed Vane. "It's a county town and they're rather particular. I'm not certain that happiness isn't an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act. Incidentally, I don't think there would be many convictions these days. . . ."

She stopped for a moment and faced him. "That's not allowed, Derek; it's simply not allowed."

"Your servant craves pardon," he answered gravely, and for a while they walked on in silence.

They passed two ragged children who had collected on their faces more dirt than seemed humanly possible, and nothing would content Joan but that she should present each with a sixpence.

"Poor little devils," and her voice was very soft. "What a life to look forward to, Derek--what a hideous existence. . . ."

"It's all they've ever been brought up to." He put sixpence into each little grubby paw, and smiled down at the awestruck faces. "Go and spend it all on sweets," he told them, "and be really, wonderfully, happily sick for once in your lives. . . ."

And then at last they turned a corner, and in front of them stretched the Downs. On their left the grim, frowning prison stood sombre and apparently lifeless, and as Joan passed it she gave a little shudder.

"Oh! Boy," she cried, "isn't it impossible to get away from the suffering and the rottenness--even for a moment?" She shook herself as if to cast off the mood, and stretched out her arms to the open hills. "I'm sorry," she said briefly. "Come into the big spaces and tell me what you want to say. . . ."

For a while they walked on over the clean-cut turf and the wind from the sea swept through the gorse and the rustling grasses, and kissed them, and passed on.

"There is a hayrick, I see, girl o' mine," said Vane. "Let's go and sit under it. And in defiance of all laws and regulations we will there smoke a cigarette."

They reached the sheltered side of it, and Vane threw down his coat on the ground for her to sit on.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" she whispered, and he drew her into his arms and kissed her. Then he made her sit down, and arranged the coat around her shoulders.

"You come in too," she ordered. "There's plenty of room for both. . . ."

And so with his arm around her waist, and his cheek touching hers they sat for awhile in silence.

Then suddenly Vane spoke. "Grey girl--I'm going away to-day."

"Going away?" She echoed the words and stared at him incredulously. "But . . . but . . . I thought. . . ."

"So did I," he returned quietly. "When I came down here yesterday I had only one thought in my mind--and that was to make you give up Baxter. I wanted it from purely selfish reasons; I wanted it because I wanted you myself. . . ."

"And don't you now?" Her voice was wondering.

"More--infinitely more--than I did before. But there's one thing I want even more than that--your happiness." He was staring steadily over the great stretch of open country to where Crowborough lay in the purple distance. "When you came to me last night, little Joan, I thought I should suffocate with the happiness of it. It seemed so gloriously trustful of you . . . though, I must admit that idea did not come at first. You see I'm only a man; and you're a lovely girl. . . ." He laughed a little shortly. "I'd made up my mind to drift these next two or three days, and then when you came it seemed to be a direct answer to the problem. I didn't realise just to begin with that you weren't quite capable of thinking things out for yourself. . . . I didn't care, either. It was you and I--a woman and a man; it was the answer. And then you started to cry--in my arms. The strain had been too much. Gradually as you cried and clung to me, all the tearing overmastering passion went--and just a much bigger love for you came instead of it. . . . You see, it seemed to me that you, in your weakness last night, had placed the settlement on my shoulders. . . ."

"It's there now, dear man," she whispered. "I'd just got tired, tired, tired of fighting---- And last night it all seemed so clear." With her breast rising and falling quickly she stared over the hills, and Vane watched her with eyes full of love.

"I know it did--last night," he answered.

"Don't you understand," she went on after a moment, "that a woman wants to have her mind made up for her? She doesn't want arguments and points of view--she wants to be taken into a man's arms, and kissed, and beaten if necessary. . . . I don't know what was the matter with me last night; I only know that I was lying in bed feeling all dazed and bruised--and then suddenly I saw the way out. To come to you--and get things settled." She turned on him and her face was very tense. "You weren't--you weren't shocked," her voice was very low. "Not disgusted with me."

Vane threw back his head and laughed. "My lady," he said after a moment, "forgive my laughing. But if you could even, in your wildest dreams, imagine the absurdity of such an idea, you'd laugh too. . . ." Then he grew serious again, and stabbed at the ground with the point of his stick. "Do you suppose, dear, that I wouldn't sooner have taken that way out myself? Do you suppose that the temptation to take that way out isn't beating and hammering at me now? . . . That's why I've got to go. . . ."

"What do you mean?" Her face was half-averted.

"I mean," he answered grimly, "that if I stopped at Melton to-night, I should come to your room. As I think I said before, I'm just a man, and you're a lovely girl--and I adore you. But I adore you sufficiently to run away from a temptation that I know would defeat me. . . ."

She turned and faced him. "And supposing I want it to defeat you?"

"Ah! don't--don't. . . . For the love of God--don't!" he cried, getting up and striding away. He stood with his back towards her, while a large variety of separate imps in his brain assured him that he was an unmitigated fool.

"For Heaven's sake!--take what the gods offer you," they sang. "Here in the cold light of day, where there's no question of her being overwrought, she's asking you to settle things for her. Take it, you fool, take it. . . ."

And the god who concerned himself with that particular jig-saw among a hundred others paused for a moment and gave no heed to the ninety-nine. Then he turned over two or three pages to see what was coming, and forthwith lost interest. It is a bad thing to skip--even for a god.

Suddenly Vane felt Joan's hand on his arm, and looking down he found her at his side.

"Don't you understand, dear man?" she said. "I'm frightened of being left to decide . . . just frightened to death."

"And don't you understand, dear girl," he answered, "that I'm frightened of deciding for you? If one decides wrong for oneself- well, it's one's own funeral. But if it's for somebody else--and it's their funeral. . .."

"Even if the other person begs you to do it?"

"Even if the other person begs one to do it," he repeated gravely. "Except that the sexes are reversed, little Joan--something much like this happened not long ago. And the woman told the man to go and make sure. . . . I guess she was frightened of staking everything on a sudden rush of sex. She was right." He turned to her and caught both her hands in his with a groan. "Oh! my dear--you know what you said to me last night before dinner. Sex--sex--sex; the most powerful weapon in the world--and the most transitory. And I daren't use it--I just daren't any more."

He caught her in his arms and kissed her. "I can't forget that when you decided before--you decided against me. Something has happened since then, Joan. . . . Last night. . . . It's another factor in the situation, and I don't quite know how powerful it will prove. It's too near, just at present. . . . It's out of focus. But clear through everything I know it wouldn't be playing the game to rush you with another--last night. . . ."

He stared over her head, and the wind blew the tendrils of her hair against his cheek. "We've got to get last night into its proper place, grey girl," he went on after a while. "And only you can do it. . . . As far as I'm concerned--why there's never been any doubt. . . . It's just for you to decide. . . ."

"But I don't want to decide." Her voice, a little muffled, came from his shoulder. "I want you to decide for me." Then, leaning away from him, she put both her hands on his shoulders. "Take me away, Derek- take me away with you now. Let's go and get married--just you and I and Binks--and go right away from everyone, and be alone." Once again the imps knocked tauntingly, but Vane only smiled gravely and shook his head.

"Where would the difference be, darling?" he asked. "Where would the difference be? I guess it's not a question of with or without benefit of clergy between you and me."

Her hands fell to her side wearily, and she turned away. "I suppose you're doing what you think is right, dear," she said at length. "And I can't take you and drag you to the altar, can I?"

"I'll want no dragging, little Joan, if you're of the same mind in a fortnight's time." Then suddenly he caught both her hands in his. "My dear, my dear!" he cried hoarsely; "don't you see I must give you time to make sure? I must. . . ."

She shook her head. "I've had too much time already, Derek. I'm frightened of time; I don't want to think. . . . Oh! boy, boy, don't let me think; just take me, and think for me. . . ."

But once again Vane smiled gravely, and shook his head. "We can't dodge it like that, my darling--we just can't. . . ." He bent down to pick up his coat, and the god in charge sent a casual glance in their direction, to see that matters were progressing favourably. And when he saw the little hopeless smile on the girl's face he turned to one of his pals.

"It's too easy," he remarked in a bored voice, and turned his attention to a struggling curate with four children who had married for love. . . .

And so that afternoon Vane acted according to his lights. Maybe it was wisdom, maybe it was folly, but the point is immaterial, for it was written in the Book of the Things that Happen.

He went, telling his host that he had found fresh orders at the Post Office that morning: and the girl waved her handkerchief at him from her bedroom window as the car went down the drive.

For one brief moment after lunch they had been alone--but she had made no further attempt to keep him. She had just kissed him once, and listened to his words of passionate love with a grave little smile. "Only a fortnight, my darling," he had told her. "But we must give it that. You must be sure." And he had been too much taken up with his own thoughts to notice the weariness in her eyes.

She said nothing to him of the unread letter lying on her dressing table upstairs, and not till long after he had gone did she pick up the envelope and turn it over and over in her fingers. Then, at last, she opened it.

It was just in the same vein as all the letters her father was writing her at this period. Brimming over with hope and confidence and joy and pleasure; planning fresh beauties for their beloved Blandford--he always associated Joan with himself in the possession of it; scheming how she was to come and stay with him for long visits each year after she was married. It was the letter of a man who had come out of the darkness of worry into the light of safety; and as in all the others, there was the inevitable reference to the black times that were over.

Slowly the dusk came down, the shadows deepened in the great trees outside. The Downs faded into a misty blur, and at length she turned from the window. In the flickering light of the fire she threw herself face downwards on her bed. For an hour she lay there motionless, while the shadows danced merrily around her, and darkness came down outside. Just every now and then a little pitiful moan came from her lips, muffled and inarticulate from the depths of the pillow; and once a great storm of sobs shook her--sobs which drenched the old scented linen with tears. But for the most part she lay in silence with her hands clenched and rigid, and thus did she pass along the way of Pain to her Calvary. . . .

At six o'clock she rose and bathed her face, and powdered her nose as all normal women must do before facing an unsympathetic world, even if the torments of Hell have got them on the rack. Then with firm steps she went downstairs to the drawing-room, and found it empty. Without faltering she crossed to the piano, and took from the top of a pile of music "The Garden of Kama." She turned to the seventh song of the cycle--

 "Ah! when Love comes, his wings are swift,
 His ways are full of quick surprise;
 'Tis well for those who have the gift
 To seize him even as he flies. . . ."

Her eyes ran over the well-known lines, and she sat down at the piano and sang it through. She sang it as she had never sung before; she sang it as she would never sing it again. For the last note had barely died away, throbbing into silence, when Joan took the score in her hands and tore it across. She tore the pages again, and then she carried the pieces across and threw them into the fire. It was while she was pressing down the remnants with a poker that Mrs. Sutton came into the room and glanced at her in mild surprise.

"It's an old song," said Joan with a clear, ringing laugh. "One I shall never sing again. I'm tired of it. . . ."

And the god in charge paused for a moment, and wondered if it was worth while. . . .