The Lover, the Girl, and the Onlooker
THE LOVER. THE GIRL, AND
By E. Nesbit.
THE two were alone in the grassy courtyard of the ruined castle. The rest of the picnic party had wandered away from them, or they from it. Out of the green-grown mound of fallen masonry by the corner of the chapel a great may-brush grew, silvered and pearled on every scented, still spray. The sky was deep, clear, strong blue above, and against the blue the wall-flowers shone bravely from the cracks and crevices of ruined arch and wall and buttress.
"They shine like gold," she said. "I wish one could get at them!"
"Do you want some?" he said, and on the instant bis hand had found a strong jutting stone, his foot a firm ledge; and she saw his figure, grey flannel against grey stone, go up the wall towards the yellow flowers.
"Oh, don't!" she cried. "I don't really want them! Please not—I wish——"
Then she stopped, because he was already some twelve feet from the ground, and she knew that one should not speak to a man who is climbing ruined walls. So she clasped her hands and waited, and her heart seemed to go out like a candle in the wind, and to leave only a dark, empty, sickening space where, a moment before, it had beat in anxious joy. For she loved him, had loved him these two years, had loved him since the day of their first meeting. And that was just as long as he had loved her. But he had never told his love. There is a code of honour—right or wrong—and it forbids a man with an income of a hundred and fifty a year to speak of love to a girl who is reckoned an heiress. There are plenty who transgress the code, but they are in all the other stories.
So he drove his passion on the curb and mastered it. Yet the questions, "Does she love me? Does she know I love her? Does she wonder why I don't speak?" and the counter-questions, "Will she think I don't care? Doesn't she, perhaps, care at all? Will she marry someone else before I've earned the right to try to make her love me?" afforded a see-saw of reflection, agonising enough, for those small hours of wakefulness when we let our emotions play the primitive games with us. But always the morning brought strength to keep to his resolution. He saw her for three long times every year, when Christmas, Easter and Midsummer brought her to stay with an aunt, and brought him home to his people for holidays. Also, though he denied himself the joy of speaking in words, he had let his eyes speak more than he knew.
And now he had reached the wall-flowers high up, and was plucking them and throwing them down, so that they fell in a wavering, bright shower round her feet. She did not pick them up. Her eyes were on him, and the empty place where her heart used to be seemed to swell till it almost choked her.
He was coming down now. He was only about twenty-five feet from the ground. There was no sound at all but the grating of his feet as he set them on the stones, and the movement, now and then, of a bird in the ivy. then came a rustle, a gritty clatter, loud falling stones—his foot had slipped and he had fallen. No, he was hanging by his hands above the great refectory arch, and his body swung heavily with the impetus of the checked fall. He was moving along now, slowly, hanging by his hands; now he grasped an ivy root—another—and pulled himself up till his knee was on the moulding of the arch.
She would never have believed anyone who should have told her that only two minutes had been lived between the moment of his stumble and the other moment when his foot touched the grass and he came towards her among the fallen wall-flowers. He was rather paler than usual. She was a very nice girl, and not at all forward, and I cannot understand or excuse her conduct. She made two steps towards him with her hands held out—caught him by the arms just above the elbow, shook him angrily, as one shakes a naughty child, looked him once in the eyes, and buried her face in his neck, sobbing long, dry, breathless sobs.
Even then he tried to be strong.
"Don't," he said tenderly, "don't worry. It's all right—I was a fool. Pull yourself together—there's somebody coming."
"I don't care," she said, for the touch of his cheek pressed against her hair told her all that she wanted to know. "Let them come—I don't care! Oh! how could you he so silly and horrid? Oh, thank God! thank God! Oh! how could you?"
Of course, a really honourable young man would have got out of the situation somehow. He didn't. He accepted it—with his arms round her and his lips against the face where the tears now run warm and salt. It was one of the immortal moments.
The picture was charming, too—a picture to wring the heart of the onlooker with envy—or sympathy, according to his nature. But there was only one Onlooker—a man of forty or thereabouts, who paused for an instant under the great gate of the castle and took in the full charm and meaning of the scene. He turned away and went back along the green path, with hell in his heart. The other two were in Paradise. The Onlooker felt like the third in Eden—the serpent, in fact. Two miles away he stopped and lit a pipe.
"It's got to be borne, I suppose," he said, "like all the rest of it. She's happy enough. I ought to be glad. Anyway, I can't stop it."
Perhaps he swore a little. If he did, the less precise may, perhaps, pardon him. He had loved the girl since her early teens, and it was only yesterday's post that had brought him the appointment that one might marry on. The appointment had come through her father, for whom the Onlooker had fagged at Eton. He went back to London, hell burning briskly. Moral maxims and ethereal ideals notwithstanding, it was impossible for him to he glad that she was happy—like that,
The Lover who came to his love over strewn wall-flowers desired always, as has been seen, to act up to his moral ideals. So he took next day a much earlier train than was at all pleasant, and called on her father to explain his position and set forth his prospects. His coming was heralded by a letter from her. One must not quote it—it is not proper to read other people's letters, especially letters to a trusted father from a child, only and adored. Its effect may be indicated briefly. It showed the Father that the Girl's happiness had had two long years in which to learn to grow round the thought of the young man whom he now faced for the first time. Odd! For to the Father he seemed just like other young men. It seemed to him that there were so many more of the same pattern from whom she might have chosen. And many of them well off, too. However, the letter lay in the prosperous pocket-book in the breast of the Father's frock-coat, and the Lover was received as though that letter had been a charm to ensure success—a faulty, or at least a slow-working charm, however, for the father did not take a bag of gold from his safe and say: "Take her; take this also; be happy." He only consented to a provisional engagement, took an earnest interest in the young man's affairs, and offered to make his daughter an annual allowance on her marriage. "At my death she will have more," he said, "and of course I have insured my life. You, of course, will insure yours."
"Of course I will," the Lover echoed warmly. "Does it matter what office?"
"Oh! any good office—the influential, if you like. I'm a director, you know."
The young man made a reverent note of the name, and the interview seemed played out.
"It's a complicated nuisance," mused the Father. "It isn't even as if I knew anything of the chap. I oughtn't to have allowed the child to make these long visits to her aunt. Or I ought to have gone with her. But I never could stand my sister Fanny. Well, well," and he went back to his work with the plaid, unvarnished heart-ache of the anxious father, not romantic and pretty like the lover's pangs, but as uncomfortable as tooth-ache all the same.
He had another caller that afternoon; he whom we know as the Onlooker came to thank the Father for the influence that had got him the appointment as doctor to the Influential Insurance Company.
The Father opened his heart to the Onlooker, and the Onlooker had to bear it. It was an hour full of poignant sentiments. The only definite thought that came to the Onlooker was this: "I must hold my tongue. I must hold my tongue." He held it.
Three days later he took up his new work. And the very first man who came to him for medical examination was the man in whose arms he had seen the girl he loved.
The Onlooker asked the first needful questions automatically. To himself he was saying: "The situation is dramatically good, but I don't see how to develop the action. It really is rather amusing that I—I should have to tap his beastly chest, and listen to his cursed lungs, and ask sympathetic questions about his idiotic infant illnesses. There's one thing: he ought to be able to remember those pretty vividly, the confounded pup!"
The Onlooker had never done anything wronger than you have done, my good reader, and he never expected to meet a giant temptation—any more than you do. A man may go all his days and never meet Apollyon. On the other hand, Apollyon may be waiting for one round the corner of the nest street. The Devil was waiting for the Onlooker in the answers to his careless questions—
"Father alive? No? What did he die of?"
For the answer was "Heart," and in it the Devil rose and showed the Onlooker the really only true and artistic way to develop the action in this situation, so dramatic in it possibilities. The illuminative flash of temptation was so sudden, so brilliant, that the Doctor Onlooker closed his soul's eyes and yielded without even the least pretence of resistance.
He took his stethoscope from the table, and he felt as though he had picked up a knife to stab the other man in the back—as, in fact, he had.
Ten minutes later the stabbed man was reeling from the Onlooker's consulting-room. Mind and soul reeled, that is, but his body was stiffer and straighter than usual. He walked with more than his ordinary firmness of gait, as a man does who is just drunk enough to know that he must try to look sober.
He walked down the street, certain words ringing in his ears: "Heart affected. Probably hereditary weakness. No office in the world would insure you."
And so it was all over—the dreams, the hopes, the palpitating faith in a beautiful future. His days might be long, they might be brief; but, be his life long or short, he must live it alone. He had a little fight with himself as he went down Threadneedle Street; then he hailed a hansom and went and told her father, who quite agreed with him that it was all over. The Father wondered at himself for being more sorry than glad.
Then the Lover went and told the Girl. He had told the Father first, to ensure himself against any chance of yielding to what he knew the Girl would say. She said it, of course, with her dear arms round his neck.
"I won't give you up just because you are ill," she said. "Why, you want me more than ever!"
"But I may die at any moment."
"So may I! And you may live to be a hundred. I'll take my chance, Oh! don't you see, too, that if there is only a little time, we ought to spend it together?"
"It's impossible," he said. "It's no good. I must set my teeth and bear it. And you—— I hope it won't be as hard for you as it will for me."
"But you can't give me up if I won't be given up, can you?"
His smile struck her dumb. It was more convincing than his words.
"But why?" she said presently. "Why-why—why?"
"Because I won't, because it's wrong. My father ought never to have married. He had no right to bring me into the world to suffer like this. It's a crime. And I'll not be a criminal—not even for you—not even for you. You'll forgive me—won't yon? I didn't know—and—oh I what's the use of talking?"
Yet they talked for hours. Conventionally he should have torn himself away, unable to bear the strain of his agony. As a matter of fact, he sat by her holding her hand. It was for the last time—the last, last time. There was really a third at that interview. The Onlooker had imagination enough to see the scene between the parting lovers.
So they parted.
And now the Onlooker dared not meet her—dared not call at the house as he used to do. At last the Father pressed him. He went. He met her. And it was as though he had met the ghost of her whom he had loved. Her eyes had blue marks under them, her chin had grown more pointed, her nose sharper. There was a new line on her forehead, and her eyes had changed.
Over the wine he heard from the Father that she was pining for the Lover who had inherited heart disease.
"I suppose it was you who saw him, by the way," said he—"a tall, well-set-up young fellow, dark, not bad-looking?"
"I—I don't remember," lied the Onlooker, with the eyes of his memory on the white face of the man he had stabbed.
Now, the Lover and the Onlooker had each his own burden to bear. And the Lover's was the easier. He worked still, though there was now nothing to work for more; he worked as he had never worked in his life, because he knew that if he did not take to work, he should take to drink or worse devils, and he set his teeth and swore that her lover should not be degraded. He knew that she loved him, and there was a kind of fierce pain-pleasure—like that of scratching a sore—in the thought that she was as wretched as he was; that, divided in all else, they were yet united in their suffering. He thought it made him more miserable to know of her misery. But it didn't. He never saw her; but he dreamed of her, and sometimes the dreams got out of hand and carried him a thousand worlds from all that lay between them. Then he had to wake up. And that was bad.
But the Onlooker was no dreamer, and he saw her about three times a week. He saw how the light of life that his lying lips had blown out was not to be re-kindled by his or any man's breath. He saw her slenderness turn to thinness—the pure, healthy pallor of her rounded cheek change to a sickly white, covering a clear-cut mask of set endurance. And there was no work that could shut out that sight, no temptation of the world, the flesh or the devil to give him even the relief of a fight. He had no temptations. He had never had but the one. His soul was naked to the bitter wind of the actual; and the days went by. And every day he knew more and more surely that he had lied and thrown away his soul, and that the wages of sin were death, and no other thing whatever. And gradually, little by little, the whole worth of life grew to lie in the faint, far chance of his being able to undo the one triumphantly impulsive and unreasoning action of his life.
But there are some acts that there is no undoing. And the hell that had burned in his heart so fiercely when he had seen her in the other man's arms, burned now with new, bright lights and infernal, flickering flame-tongues.
And at last, out of hell, the Onlooker reached out his hands and caught at prayer. He caught at it as a drowning man catches at a white gleam in the black of the surging sea about him; it may be a painted spar, it may be empty foam. The Onlooker prayed.
And that very evening he ran up against the Lover at the Temple Station, and he got into the same carriage with him.
He said: "Excuse me. You don't remember me?"
"I'm not likely to have forgotten you," said the Lover.
"I fear my verdict was a great blow. You look very worried, very ill. News like that is a great shock."
"It is a little unsettling," said the Lover.
"Are you still going on with your usual work?"
"Speaking professionally, I think you are wrong. You lessen your chances of life. Why don't you try a complete change?"
"Because, if you must know, my chances of life have ceased to interest me."
The Lover was short with the Onlooker, but he persisted.
"Well, if one isn't interested in one's life, one may be interested in one's death, or the manner of it. In your place, I should enlist. It's better to die of a bullet in South Africa than of fright in London."
That roused the Lover, as it was meant to do.
"I don't really know what business it is of yours, sir," he said; "but it's your business to know that they wouldn't pass a man with a heart like mine."
"I don't know. They're not so particular just now. They want men. I should try it if I were you. If you don't have a complete change, you'll go all to pieces. That's all."
The Onlooker got out at the next station. Short of owning to his own lie, he had done what he could to ensure its being found out for the lie it was—or, at least, for a mistake. And when he had done what he could, he saw that the Lover might not find it out—might be passed for the Army—might go to the front—might be killed—and then. … "Well, I've done my best, anyhow," he said to himself. And himself answered him: "Liar, you have not done your best. You will have to eat your lie. Yes, though it will smash your life and rain you socially and professionally. You will have to tell him you lied—and to tell him why; worse, you will have to tell her. You will never let him go to South Africa without telling the truth—you'll call on her on Sunday and tell her the whole ugly thing—and you know it."
"Well, you know best, I suppose," he said to himself.
"But are you perfectly certain?"
"Pairfectly! I tell you, man, ye're's sound's a bell, and a fine fathom of a young man at that, too. Sairtain? Losh, man! ye can call in the whole College of Physeecians in consultation, an' I'll wager me professional reputation they'll endorse me opeenion. Your hairt's as sound's a roach. Yon man must ha' been asleep when ye consulted him. Ye'll mak' a fine soldier, me lad."
"I think not," said the Lover, and he went out from the presence. This time he reeled like a man too drunk to care how drunk he looks.
He drove in cabs from Harley Street to Wimpole Street, and from Wimpole Street to Brooke Street; and he saw Sir William This and Sir Henry That, and Mr. The-other-thing, the great heart specialists.
And then he went home and dressed himself in his most beautiful frock-coat and his softest white silk tie, and put a gardenia in his button-hole—and went to see the Girl.
"Looks like as if he was going to a wedding," said his landlady.
When he had told the Girl everything, and when she was able to do anything but laugh find cry and cling to him with thin hands, she said: "Dear, I do so hate to think badly of anybody. But do you really think that man was mistaken? He's very, very clever."
"My child, Sir Henry, and Sir William, and Mr.——"
"Ah! I don't mean that. I know you're all right. Thank God! Oh, thank God! I mean, don't you think he may have lied to you to prevent your … marrying me?"
"But why should de?"
"He—he—asked me to marry him three weeks ago. He's a very old friend of ours. I do hate to be suspicious—but … it is odd. And then his trying to get you to South Africa. I'm certain he wanted you out of the way. He wanted you to get killed. Oh! how can people be so cruel?"
"I believe you're right," said the Lover thoughtfully. "I couldn't have believed that a man could be base like that, through and through. But I suppose some people are like that—without a gleam of feeling or remorse or pity."
"You ought to expose him."
"Not I—we'll just cut him. That's all I'll trouble to do. I've got you—I've got you in spite of him. I can't waste my time in hunting down vermin."