The Kiss (Nesbit story)
BY E. NESBIT
AUTHOR OP "THE INCOMPLETE AMORIST"
THEIR first meeting was in the long gallery among the Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities at the British Museum. Enthusiast though he was, he was tired, as human souls are tired, with the cold reserve of carved stone—the imperturbable mystery of these old kings and gods who had kept for thousands of years, amid the shifting sands of the desert, their immemorial secrets. His eyes ached with the close scrutiny of minute and delicate detail. Then suddenly his eyes rested on her, fair and laughing and full of the joy of life, and his soul rejoiced because there was still youth in the world, and secrets that no kings and gods had power to keep from the sons of men who walk the earth to-day.
She came along the gallery between two other girls, but he did not see these as living creatures—only as dark figures against the light of her presence. It was not till they three were close to him that he became aware of her, and looked up. Their eyes met and stayed together in a look that lasted a very long time—almost half a minute. She came up quite close to him, always with those others that did not count, and then abruptly, the three turned to the right and the swing doors of the refreshment room vibrated behind them.
Then he tried to analyze that look of hers—not bold or provocative, yet with no timidity, no bashfulness, no self-consciousness. It was the look of one who trusts the world and thinks well of it. Many girls nowadays have that frank, fearless look. The qualities which made the look a thing worth analyzing were two: its length and a singular quality of recognition. Did she know him? Had he ever met her before? No, he could not have forgotten her. He lingered in the gallery till she and her companions came back through the swing doors. This time she had no eyes for him. He sauntered slowly the way they went, noted all down the Roman gallery the grace of her free gait, saw her disappear into the reading-room, and went home.
His home was in Kent, and he was going to say good-bye to it for awhile—for next week he started for the East, to watch, under cloudless skies, paid and uninterested workers scraping at the earth to bring to light such cold witnesses to old faith and loyalty and love as lined the gallery where he had met her.
The last days were full. His father who stayed at home and wrote the books for which Neville gathered the materials, had many last words to say. Also his type-writing girl had gone off ill, and there was a delay in getting another. So Neville spent a good many hours in the work secretaries are paid for. Also his aunt, who adored him, wanted his opinion on the new Dutch garden that was now a bit of meadow beyond the orchard, and was to be a blaze of formal beauty when he came home again.
"You'll think about that mass of yellow tulips and forgetmenots when you are boiling your brains in Egypt," she said.
"I'm not imaginative enough," he told her. "I shall see the old garden as I always do, and the rose arches all red and pink and yellow, and my nice aunt snipping off the dead flowers with a pair of rusty scissors."
"Aren't there any flowers out there?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, cactus flowers, but they're not pleasant to pick. It's difficult to believe that spring really will come again, isn't it? when one sees the brown bare trees and the heaps of dead leaves."
"But all the flowers are there under the leaves," said the aunt; "and spring really will come again."
The aunt was right. Spring did come again. And with its coming came Neville Underwood from the dry East. He sent his luggage up from the station in the dog cart that came to meet him, and he himself walked up through the woods in the splendor of one of those afternoons when May takes the rôle of July and plays the part perfectly.
The beeches were thick with bright light leaves, the elms were fully dressed; only the oaks stood almost bare. The undergrowth of hazel and sweet chestnut was thick and fresh. Through its moving green the sun made a golden haze and the shadows of the leaves danced on a pathway that was all green grass and glad little thriving wild weeds.
"Dear God; but it's good to see green woods again," he said.
And it was here, among the woods, that he met her the second time. In the middle of that wood is a carrefour, an open space of bright fine grass, and from it four broad green rides run, straight as arrows, dip and dwindle and grow invisible with distance. The ground is green, the undergrowth is green and the new fronds of bracken and the trees overhead. And in all this green a note of deep blue is likely to take the eye of the gazer.
It took him through a tangle of woodbine and wild rose trails. He went about and skirting the thicket came to a little clearing. A tree had been cut down and its branches lopped. And here was the blue; it was a girl's dress and the girl herself lay on the ground, her head on a cushion of green leaves, one hand clenched on her breast and the other by her side; her body thrown there, with all the abandonment of a tired kitten that sleeps in the sun at flat full length. So still she lay he could hardly believe that she slept. He stood and gazed at her. Not a movement. It was still there, in the warm wood; not a hair of her loosely bound locks stirred. Was she asleep? Could she have fainted? A keener question pierced him suddenly. There were crimes—even in England. One read about them in the newspapers. He came nearer—stooped beside her. His hand hesitated. Could one—dared one, lay one's hand under the heart of a strange lady, no matter what mad fear suddenly caught one? And he did not know her. All he remembered of her was her eyes and these were shut. Perhaps he would never have known her if she had kept them shut. But, as he, kneeling, stooped more nearly to listen for her breathing, her eyes opened and he knew her. Her eyes opened, she smiled sleepily. Then——
It was impossible. There he stood in the wood, and there she lay, eyes closed, motionless as ever. Could one have these momentary dreams? Were woods sometimes enchanted, as old tales would have one to believe? For it had certainly seemed to him that she had opened her eyes, smiled and then—that she had put up an arm, soft and firm through the sun-warmed linen of its sleeve, had caught him round the neck, drawn his face down to hers till he had kissed her on the lips. Incredible, impossible. And further, it had seemed to him that his kiss had only been given as a rejoinder, an unavoidable rejoinder.
So he stood, looking at her, and now he saw that whether he had dreamed this or not, she was not dead, nor fainting, but equably asleep. At any rate the deep, soft breathing that stirred the blue linen over her bosom, the eyelids deep-drooped, and with never a flicker of awakening, the limp abandon of the hands told of nothing but sleep—deep sleep. Only now the pallor of her face was flushed with rose-color.
He stepped back through the quiet green and walked home through the part of the wood which was not enchanted. The warm touch of her mouth was on his all the way. But it vanished when the aunt's soft faded cheek lay against his lips, and the brilliant patchwork of the Dutch garden shut out the green woods of magic happenings. The glad dance of the leaves in the green wood paled before the father, full of glad questionings and comments, his trembling hands stirring deep drifts of rustling leaves—notes for the new book, on all sorts of odd scraps of paper—it was good to be at home where one was so loved, so desired. And he told himself that he must have fallen asleep in the wood. Certainly the girl from the Museum could never have fallen asleep there.
Tea was served under the copper-beech.
"Are you expecting any one?" Neville asked, for the cups were four.
"Only Phil—your father's secretary, I mean," said the aunt. "Ah, here she comes——"
And of course it was the girl from the Museum who came across the lawn in her blue dress, with a hat that hung from her arm by knotted strings.
Neville heard the aunt speak kindly to the girl, heard his name and another name, and found himself bowing to the girl whose lips—— But he heard nothing distinctly, because of the horrible new certainty that sprang at him. It was true. It was no vision. This girl whose eyes had haunted him among the Egyptian tombs more than once and more than twice—this demure girl who was his father's secretary, this girl had really of her own free will drawn down the head of a perfect stranger with that arm now reached out for her tea cup, had drawn it down till the stranger's lips lay on hers. "It was beautiful in the woods," she was saying.
She was sitting there—talking to his aunt and his father—quietly, as if nothing had happened. She, who had kissed a stranger in a wood. She had never thought to meet him again. Just the passing kiss, the moment of pale stolen fire—and now she had met him, what would she do? Nothing, she would brazen the whole thing out. Horrible. But she had not been able to help blushing. It was that deep, slow-fading blush that had enlightened him—had shown him that it was no vision, that she also remembered. A burning crimson blush, over face and ears and neck; and the aunt had said:
"I hope you haven't hurried, dear, in this heat."
And she had said: "I didn't want to be late for tea."
He handed bread and butter to her. She was not blushing now.
"Oh, bother," said Neville to himself, "now all the peace and pleasure is gone. It won't be like home with a wicked little cat like that about the place."
She was pretty, he decided, much prettier than he had thought her at the Museum. Pretty, and in an open-eyed, candid-looking way that did not rhyme with the disgraceful conduct of that girl in the wood.
She went away, presently, with the father to garner into sheaves those loose leaves of notes. Then Neville heard how she was the daughter of Grantham, the great Egyptologist, dead these three years, how she was very clever at her work, very good company, and altogether a dear child. "But you mustn't fall in love with her, Neville," the aunt said, "and thank Heaven you're not given to that sort of thing."
"Thank Heaven I'm not! But why mustn't I?"
"Because she's got a sweetheart already."
"She would have," he told himself, "a sweetheart—half-a-dozen most likely."
"How I know is that Mr. Maulevere asked her to share his heart and vicarage—yes—before she'd been here a month. I thought it would be a very good thing for her, for he's really not bad, is he? And she is quite without means. Though she's so well connected. But no. Then I got it out of her that there's someone else."
"I congratulate her," said Neville lazily. "The jasmine's late this year, isn't it? "
"The jasmine flowers in July," said the aunt severely, "and I congratulate him. For if ever there was a dear, good, kind, unselfish girl——"
"Then I congratulate you," he said, "and no doubt it's lucky for me that I'm not given to 'that sort of thing.'"
It was "that sort of thing"—an unworldly romance—that had in his teens caused Neville's relations to send him, for change of scene, to Southern climes. In other words, he had gone with one of Cook's tourist tickets to Egypt, and there his father's hobby, hitherto a sealed and dull-seeming book to him, had suddenly grown to be the most important thing in the world. He had come back to England, cured of his passion for poor vulgar Annabel, with the red hair, flaxen at the roots, and the black eyelashes and brows that were white when the dye was off them. He came back cured, despising love and wearing round his neck a charm that a gipsy woman from the desert had given him when he had saved her life from the keen blade of one who had been her lover. "Wear it always," she had said; "it will keep you from unworthy loves." And it—or something else—had kept him. "It has a further power," the woman had added, "but that you will learn when the time comes."
He was not a superstitious man, but he wore the amulet. It did not keep him from the remembrance of an arm round his neck—lips on his—the shameless effrontery of a worthless girl.
"I hope," said the aunt anxiously when the father had gone to his study, and Philomela to her bed, "I do hope you're not going to dislike that girl. You hardly spoke to her all the evening."
"Didn't I?" he said. "I'll do better to-morrow."
So next morning when he saw her gown—it was mauve to-day—among the little orange trees in tubs that had just been moved out of the greenhouse on to the end of the terrace, he went across the gray crooked flag-stones to her.
"Good morning," he said, and he could hardly have said less.
"What a beautiful old place it is," she said pleasantly. "I wonder whether you know how lucky you are to have been born here."
"It's old certainly," he said, "and extremely shabby."
"That's part of the charm," she said; "really rich people never have anything beautiful because they always pay someone to make it for them. But look at the new garden. Miss Underwood and I made that—oh, of course Sam did the dull digging—but he's as proud of it as we are. We put in all the bulbs, made the plans and everything."
She was talking without a trace of embarrassment.
"That's true," said he.
"And having the drawing-room re-papered. That was an event. It took us a week to choose the paper. Now Really Rich People who can have their rooms papered whenever they like! And the orange trees—you don't know how we've nursed them all winter. If Miss Underwood could buy new ones when these died—why they'd be nothing."
He liked her voice, he liked the turn of her head, he liked her eyes—he had always liked her eyes.
"I do not like you at all," he said inwardly—"oh, not at all. You shall not make me like you."
But he stayed talking with her in the little wood of orange-trees till the aunt had laid away the jingling housekeeping keys and joined them on the terrace. Then she went to her work in the library. He strolled in presently, to talk over the book with his father.
"You won't mind Miss Grantham staying with us?" said the father. "She can take down everything you say in shorthand—and as she'll have the whole transcribing of the book to do——"
"Of course—of course," said Neville. In the course of that morning he found out that Miss Grantham was not only pretty but clever. That she knew more about his special subject than any woman he had ever met.
"Curious," he said to himself as he strolled in to lunch. "Curious how I dislike that girl."
Dislike her he might, but it was impossible not to talk to her, as it is not to answer an amiable and intelligent child. Not that she was childish or even childlike, but she seemed so unconscious of any reason why she should not talk to him. And there were so many things to talk about. The book, the garden, the old house: the growing glory of spring putting on the vestments of summer, the brasses in the old church, the new green of the aspens in the churchyard.
It was one day when the haze of great heat turned the woods blue and the far hills violet that they stood by the broken balustrade of the terrace and looked out over the fields of flowered grass dimpled by the wind.
Her eyes were fixed on the wood: the wood.
"I wonder," he said suddenly and quite without meaning to say it, "why you blushed so when my aunt introduced me to you."
She blushed again now and turned her face away to gaze down the uneven line of the gray parapet.
"Why was it?" he urged.
"I did hope you hadn't noticed," she said.
"Noticed? My dear Miss Grantham, it was like a regiment of soldiers in the sunlight. No one could have helped noticing it. Was it surprise at seeing someone else there having tea?"
He gave her that loop-hole because suddenly he found that he was sorry for her. After all, she had done him no harm. Save for that one shocking incident in the wood she had been to him all that a girl should be to a man in whose father's house she is a well-paid servant and an honored guest. She had been courteous, dignified, useful, amusing——
"No," she said, avoiding the loop-hole, "it wasn't surprise, because of course I knew you were coming. But I didn't know it would be you."
He wished then very earnestly that he had not begun to ask questions.
"Oh, never mind," he said quickly, "it doesn't matter."
"I don't understand," she said.
"It was an impertinent question."
"No, no," she said eagerly. "I've often wanted to tell you. I knew you'd noticed me blushing in that insane way. It was because I met you once at the British Museum—of course you don't remember it."
"But of course I do," he interrupted.
"I hoped you wouldn't," she said, "because I stared at you. I really honestly didn't know I'd done it till afterwards. I stared at you for quite a long time—and then—when I saw you at tea on the lawn here—I remembered, and I hoped you wouldn't."
"But why did you stare at me, as you call it—in the Museum, I mean?"
"I don't know," she said very earnestly. "I can't think. It was as if I'd seen you before and been looking for you, and then suddenly there you were. I believe I expected you to shake hands. It was as if we were old friends. It does sound most frightfully silly. Do you think one ever has moments when one is quite mad?"
"I do," he said earnestly. "I do indeed; I've had moments when I've fancied the most extraordinary things. But they've not been true," he added stoutly, "any more than it was true that we'd met before that day at the Museum."
"Are you sure we never met before—at a dance or anywhere? Oh, yes, I used to go to heaps of dances before father—when father was here. Are you sure that we never met before?"
"Quite," he said. "I should never have forgotten it if we had." His tone was one she had never heard.
And now he was quite certain that the hollow in the wood and the sleeping blue figure and the round arm and all the rest of it had been only a vision—queer and unaccountable, but still a vision. The certitude made a new heaven and a new earth for him. How could he ever have thought that she, she who was all that a man's ideal lady should be, could ever have put an arm around the neck of a stranger and—but why go over the silly tale again?
The silly tale, however, sang itself to him day and night like a song of the joy of all the world. He had felt her lips, though it had been but in a vision, and all his visions now, sleeping and waking, were of a time when he should touch those lips again.
He and she and the father worked hard at the book, often late into the night, but there were golden mornings and silver evenings when the garden was gray in starlight, and the white moon fell into the river and lay there looking up at her reflection in the deep calm sky.
The aunt and the father looked on, and saw that more and more, in all the hours that the book did not claim, the two were together. And they were glad.
"If only he can make her forget the other one," said the aunt, "he'll never find such another—kind, gentle, sweet——"
"And clever!" said the father, "and patient. And pretty, too."
"That doesn't matter so much," said the aunt, "but she's so modest and sweet and—she has a perfect genius for gardening."
"And for our sort of work," the father said. "I don't suppose there's another girl alive with eyes like hers who knows shorthand, and the Egyptian and Assyrian script, and how to be always handy and never in the way."
"I must make her forget the other man, confound him," said Neville, and wondered savagely whether the other man had ever had wild, wonderful visions in woodland places.
Then came the wet day, the last of three, when the river was gray and lashed with rain and the garden lay drenched and the roses, bowed, mud-splashed, drooped and dripped. Philomela covered her head with the aunt's waterproof and ran through the rain and the wild west wind to the stone summer house at the end of the terrace. Here was an unglazed window that looked eastward; from it one could look out, sheltered and safe, at the green seething wetness of meadow and wood.
Here he found her. He came behind her as she sat on the stone seat, and she did not turn her head.
"Philomela," he said; his voice was low.
"Yes," she said.
Standing at her shoulder he put his hand under her chin and turned her face up till he could see it.
"Philomela," he said again, "is there any one else?"
"No," said she.
Then he touched her lips, and knew, at the touch, that it was not for the first time. That—in the wood—it had not been a vision. It had been real—real as this, real as his despair.
Yet he would be sure.
"Philomela," he said her name for the third time, "have you ever fallen asleep in a wood?"
"Yes," said she, and once more the crimson flush covered neck and brow and ears.
"In that wood?" It lay below them drenched in misty desolation.
"The day I came home?"
"God forgive you," he said; turned, and left her.
He went for a long walk in the rain.
That night at dinner the aunt and the father were surprised to learn that Neville was going to town by the early train in the morning; it was uncertain when he would return. He ate little and spoke of business too long neglected. He should go by the 6.15 before any of them were up.
He stayed up late that night, packing everything in a raging fury of energy. He had loved her—he did love her—and she was—that. There was no room in his brain for fatigue—there was only room for this furious anger against the woman who had made him love her—and she herself unworthy of the love of any man.
It must have been two in the morning when, the fire of resentment beginning to burn lower, he found suddenly that he was hungry. There would be less chance of sleep than ever if he were hungry. He was not young enough to spite his stomach to be revenged on his heart. He went down into the dining-room where the sideboard was, with the sherry and the biscuits and the cake. He lit the candles in the silver candlesticks on the mantelpiece. Something moved close to him.
"Who's there?" he said. The candles turned clear, and Philomela rose from the big chair that was his father's. She wore the gray dress she had worn at dinner, and her face seemed gray, too.
"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked roughly.
"I'm waiting to see you off," she said. "You know I've got to speak to you. It can't end like this. People don't do such things."
"Leave women as you left me—after—— Oh, how I hate you! How dared you kiss me?"
"I might ask the same question," he sneered.
"Yes," he said brutally. "And I will ask it. How dared you kiss me? Down there in the wood. How dared you put your arm round a stranger's neck and draw his head down till he kissed you?"
"I—you think I did that?"
"I know it "
"You know well enough—the day I came home."
"But," she said slowly, and her eyes did not flinch from his as the two stood in the darkened room with the candles' steady light on their confronted faces, "if you know this you've always known it. Then why—all this time——?"
"I couldn't believe it. I thought afterwards it must have been a vision, a dream, an hallucination of the senses. How could I believe that you—you seemed so different—you—a stranger—shameless."
"Then if you couldn't believe it then, why believe it now?" Her voice was cold and toneless.
"Because I kissed you again—fool that I was. When I, felt your lips I knew it was not the first time—I knew, and you confirmed it; you owned that you'd been asleep in the wood that day, and you blushed—good God, girl, did you expect me to go on with it after that?"
She picked up one of the candlesticks, looked at it attentively, set it down very carefully in its place. Then she turned to him.
"Listen to me," she said. "First of all I'll never see you, speak to you again as long as I live. If you could think that I—oh—how could any one think it!"
The anger in her voice was fuel to the anger in his heart.
"But—great God in heaven, you can't mean to try to brazen it out! I didn't think—you did it."
"I'm going to tell you the truth," she said, facing him. "I don't care whether you believe me or not. I was asleep in the wood that day and I dreamed that you were there—and—and that it all happened as you say. And then I woke, and you were standing there. And I pretended to be asleep."
"But why—why did you pretend that?"
"How could I look you in the face after dreaming that?"
"And you never thought that perhaps it wasn't a dream?"
"How should I? Why!—— Oh, you shall have the whole truth. That day I saw you at the Museum, I knew you, though I'd never seen you and never dreamed of you. And ever since that I've dreamed of you almost always. That—in the wood was only a dream like another."
"Always of me? Never of any one else?"
"No," she retorted scornfully, "never of any one else—good bye."
She turned to go; but he caught her arm roughly.
"Let me go—you hurt," she said, but he said, "No; not yet. You shall tell me everything. Did you kiss me in your other dreams?"
"Yes," she said defiantly, throwing back her head, "but in my other dreams I loved you—and you loved me. No—no—I will never forgive you, never. Let me go. It's no good. I hate you. I wish I'd never seen you. No, no, no."
He had not spoken but his eyes had implored.
"No," she cried, "no, I will never forgive you, never. Oh, how could you, how could you——"
"Don't cry—ah, don't," he whispered with his arms around her.
"Here," she said presently, lifting her head from his shoulder and feeling among the laces of her bodice, "my father told me to wear this always and to give it to the man I loved when I was certain he loved me. He said it would keep me from unworthy loves."
He took it from her hand. It was an amulet. "Oh, but——" he said, and showed her the one he wore—its counterpart.
"Yes," she said, "I knew you had that. Your aunt told me. So then I knew that nothing could part us."
"But you said you'd never speak to me again—you'd never forgive me."
"Ah," she said, "yes—I said that,"
The pink flush of sunrise was over the drenched garden as they opened the French window and stepped out onto the terrace. She stopped and faced him.
"Now I'm quite, quite sure," she said. "I want to tell you one thing. Then there won't be even a shadow between us."
"There is none now," he said.
"That day—in the wood—sometimes I have wondered—whether it was a dream. And yet I thought it couldn't be true. But I did wonder if it could really be only another dream like the others."
"Come, let's go and walk in the rose garden," she said, pulling at his hand.
"But why," he persisted, "shouldn't it have been a dream like the others?"
"I—you—the kisses in the dreams were quite different," she said.