The Man Who Understood Women and Other Stories/The Child in the Garden
THE CHILD IN THE GARDEN
When he reached the village of Thergrimabes at last—and after Athens the journey had been extremely trying—the curate gathered that Miss Netterville was out. As it was six months since they had met, and he had written to her that he was coming, her fiancé was vexed.
The innkeeper had laid eager hands on the portmanteau, and the traveller signed to him imperatively to put it down. "No, no," he exclaimed. "I must sleep somewhere else—if there's another inn to be found in the hole!" He remembered that it was useless to inquire for one in English. "Upon my word," his thoughts ran, "it's most annoying! Of course, we can't both lodge in the same house, and none of these peasants will understand a word I say. How very tiresome, to be sure! Really, it's most inconsiderate of Gertrude to be out when I arrive. I shall have to be very firm with her; I see that I shall have to speak even more strongly than I intended."
It was midday, and the sun was blazing; the straggling white road baked under his dusty boots. The heat, and the thought that Miss Netterville would probably return to luncheon—to say nothing of the difficulty of seeking accommodation without an interpreter—decided the curate to remain for awhile. "A lemon-squash," he commanded, at a venture, "bring me a lemon-squash!" And then, as the order produced only smiles and shrugs, he raised a hand to his mouth with a gesture which he felt to be rather Southern and graceful.
The landlord responded volubly, and though he brought wine instead, the Rev. Aloysius Chaysle was too thirsty and fatigued to make objections to it. He sat in a little vine-clad arbour, with the wine on a bench, and his portmanteau at his side, and was much inclined to wish that he had not left Bedfordshire. The situation was undignified from first to last, he felt. It was no less than three years now since Gertrude had promised to be his wife, and their marriage had been delayed by nothing but the scientific coldness of the young woman's disposition. When a girl who was betrothed to a Church of England clergyman, with private means, allowed him to pine for her in his parish while she devoted herself to the study of archælogy abroad, it was time for the clergyman to put his foot down, thought Aloysius. And that was what he had travelled from Bedfordshire to do.
Meanwhile, Miss Netterville was trudging along the road to greet him, with a frown on her intellectual brow. She was quite aware that she was treating him unfairly, and surmised pretty shrewdly what he had come to say, and it would all be a great bore. The idea of marriage had never attracted her at any time; Man—other than prehistoric—had always been rather repellent to her than the reverse: and she wondered why she had been weak enough to disturb her life by becoming engaged. She approached the arbour with no enthusiasm.
"Hallo, Al!" she said; "I didn't expect you so early. Have you been here long?"
"I've been here the best part of an hour," relied Aloysius. "It was disappointing to find you were not at home. Well, how are you, Gertrude? Aren't you going to kiss me?"
She inclined a cheek awkwardly—such physical expressions of good feeling were distasteful to her—and stared at the portmanteau.
"What did you bring your bag out here for?" she asked. "Why didn't you take it upstairs?"
"Upstairs?" echoed the curate. "It must be taken to another hotel! But I can't speak to these people—I had to wait till you came in."
"I'm afraid that there's nothing else resembling an hotel for miles," she said; "Thergrimabes is rather primitive, you know."
"It seems so primitive that I'm dismayed to find you in it; but, with all your contempt for the conventions, I suppose you don't want us to be talked about? Surely you understand that it's out of the question for us both to sleep under the same roof, in the circumstances?"
"Oh, my dear Aloysius," she cried, "please! Spare me the artificialities! Go to one of the goatherds' cottages, if any of them has a bed to offer and you care to lie in it, but don't talk to me as if I were an ingénue in Bedfordshire—I've got beyond that sort of thing. Have they given you anything to eat? Lunch'll be ready directly—we may as well go inside."
"Gertrude," he began strenuously, "I've something to say to you, and it's just as well to say it at once. Your letters haven't been very satisfactory—over and over again you've left a question of mine unanswered. We've been engaged for three years now, and I want you to fix a day for our wedding. Will you marry me next month?"
"Next month? Oh, no, it's impossible!"
"But why? Frankly, dear, I am losing patience. Why is it always 'impossible'? Marriage needn't interfere with your work—you can write quite as easily when we're married as you do now."
"In Bedfordshire?" she said, with a fine smile.
"I don't approve of the tone in which you mention Bedfordshire!" exclaimed Aloysius. "I presume that a book may be written in Bedfordshire as well as in Thergrimabes, or in Egypt, or any other of the remote places that you've a craze for? The whole thing is preposterous. It looks a little like affectation. It would be preposterous for a girl of twenty-eight to roam about the world unprotected, in any case——"
"Unprotected?" she echoed, "unprotected? You are talking a language that I've forgotten. Really, your notions are the most antique things in Greece!"
"I say that it would be preposterous for a young girl to roam about the world alone, in any case—you might be robbed and murdered here—and considering that you're engaged to me, it's more preposterous still. It puts me in a very false position. And it's not an easy matter to explain. People have begun to talk."
"In Bedfordshire?" she inquired again.
"Yes, in Bedfordshire—and they would talk in Bloomsbury, or Belgravia, or anywhere else. It's not proper, Gertrude, it is thought very improper indeed. You must remember that you are young and pretty, and——"
"Oh, don't!" she said wearily. "What an odious word! I'm not accustomed to consider my personal appearance, but I do trust that I'm not pretty.’"
"My sister often says that you would be extremely pretty," returned Aloysius, "if you didn't strain your hair back, and paid more attention to your clothes. But your prettiness is not the point; the main thing is our engagement—you haven't the right to behave like this, you aren't free to indulge your eccentricities, you owe a duty to Me."
Miss Netterville lit a cigarette, and gazed thoughtfully across a mulberry-tree. Characteristically, she had made no change in her costume on the day of her lover's arrival—and she had stated a fact when she declared herself indifferent to her appearance as a rule; but in spite of the ill-fitting blouse, the unbecomingly dressed blonde hair, in spite even of the coldly intellectual eyes, she looked a desirable woman. A psychologist might have thought she looked also a woman with potentialities. But Aloysius was not a psychologist; he saw only the obvious—and not the whole of that.
"Of course I am to blame," she said at last. "I know. But then I never pretended to the kind of temperament that you admire. To me, my paramount duty must always be my work; to you, my paramount duty is to do the sort of thing that any other woman could do equally well. It is curious that I appeal to you. To be quite candid, love in its physical aspects is unpleasant to me, quite apart from the fact that marriage would be an abominable hindrance to my studies. I have no gift for domesticity; the prospect of district-visiting appals me, and tea-parties bore me to death. And I have no leaning towards maternity. I oughtn't to have promised to marry at all—I have more important things to do in my life. There are shoals of women capable of adding to the world's population, but the women capable of adding to its store of knowledge are comparatively few."
"You are expressing yourself very strangely," muttered the curate, "very strangely, indeed! If I understand you, you are breaking our engagement off."
"I don't want to be unkind," she said, "but I am quite sure that you ought to do better."
"That is a matter on which you must allow me to judge for myself—on which I did judge for myself when I proposed to you. I could certainly wish that you held more feminine views—and that you did not express the views that you do hold with such unusual bluntness—but, for good or ill, I love you. You must admit that to break off our engagement after all this time would be to treat me cruelly? I really don't know what I could say to people!"
"You could say that you had given me up—everybody would consider you were quite justified."
"I am not in the habit of telling falsehoods, Gertrude; I should have to acknowledge that you had thrown me over—at the end of three years, after I had travelled to Greece to see you; I had looked forward to a tenderer conclusion to the journey, I must say!" He, too, regarded the mulberry-tree. "I—I am not unreasonable, I quite appreciate your interest in your work—archæology is a very interesting subject, I am sure, and——"
Miss Netterville made a gesture of impatience. "Please don't patronise the Ages! You mean well, but it's irritating."
"I was about to explain that if next month would be inconvenient to you on literary grounds, I would cheerfully wait until the month after," said Aloysius, with pained surprise. "Let us both make concessions—let us say in two months' time! Eh, dearest? We have both let our tongues run away with us, haven't we—both been a little hasty? What do you say? You shall share my study—you shall have your own shelves in it. Only the other day I was looking at a little bamboo desk in the High Street, and thinking how admirably it would suit you. I'd write my sermons while you wrote your book, and sometimes we might turn round and read each other what we had done. Wouldn't it be cosy, now? Doesn't it sound pleasant?"
She shuddered, and nerved herself for a supreme effort.
"Al!" she stammered, "it has been a shocking mistake; I can't marry you."
And the curate did not sleep anywhere at all in Thergrimabes—he left it the same evening. When he bade her "Good-bye," he said, "I have released you from your promise, Gertrude, because you forced me to do so; but I shan't cease to long for you, and if you ever change your mind, you must let me know. Think things over after I have gone—I shall always be hoping to hear from you." Then he climbed into the crazy vehicle, and was jolted over the white road again—a disconsolate figure beside the portmanteau that had not been unpacked—and Miss Netterville went moodily to her work.
Thergrimabes consists of its dilapidated inn and a sprinkling of hovels. Half-naked children swarm in the dust, and beg of any misguided tourist who happens to stray there from the towns beyond; goatherds, dignified in their rags, roll cigarettes pensively, and prematurely old women occasionally appear at the doors and shade their eyes in the sun. These are almost the only signs of activity in Thergrimabes. For the rest, you have silence and the mountains.
Miss Netterville made many expeditions up the mountains; equipped with a scribbling block and a fountain pen, she often wrote among them. One evening—she had now written thirty thousand words, and Aloysius had been gone about a month—she heard the slow sound of hoofs. Two quaintly garbed men were riding down the track. They had evidently just observed her, and as she turned, one of them waved his sombrero to her, with an impudent smile. He was the taller of the pair, a swarthy, handsome fellow, with laughing eyes, and a big moustache that curled above full, sensual lips. She bent over her manuscript again with a frown, wondering why his glance had affected her so queerly.
The men quickened their pace, and then dismounted and advanced to her. Her emotion was pure fear now; she got up, trembling.
"There is nothing to do—she is alone!" said the smaller of the two, a weedy villain, with a squint.
"You will find you have more to do than you think," she boasted, coolly; "I am armed."
"So you understand Greek, do you?" exclaimed his companion. "That's all the better—I like a girl to be able to talk to me! You are going to have a ride with me, my beauty. If you don't come quietly, I shall have to be rough! How is it to be?"
He learnt how it was to be at once; Miss Netterville struck at the handsome face straight from the shoulder—throwing her body into the blow with capital effect—and took to flight as he reeled back. But the next instant he rushed after her; he seized her before she had covered a dozen yards. Now there was no chance to strike him—an arm flung round her held her fast, and she could only scream for help. He swung her off her feet, and stumbled with her towards the saddle. His labouring breath was in her face, but his eyes laughed into her own, though the blood that she had drawn was trickling round his mouth. As he rode off with her, crushed against him, she could feel the heaving of his breast under her cheek. They rode some distance with her cheek strained against his breast before he spoke.
"Anathema ton! What a spitfire you are!" he panted. "Look what your fist has done! Don't you think you owe me a kiss for that?"
"You brute," she gasped, "I'd like to kill you!"
"You're a regular devil of a woman—I didn't know they made them like you with that coloured hair."
"You're hurting my arm," she moaned. "I can't bear it any longer."
"Will you sit still if I don't hold so tight?"
"I couldn't escape even if I jumped off."
"That's true," said the brigand, "but I don't want the job of getting you up again; if I had your weight in gold, my dear, I'd lead an easy life!" He slackened his grasp a little, and flashed his bold, impudent smile at her—the smile that had shamed her so hotly when she first saw him. "Come, it's not disagreeable to be hugged by a man? Own up! It would be very shocking if you could help it, but you can't; remind yourself that you're not to blame, and then you can have a good time!"
"Where are you taking me?"
"To my hotel," said the facetious outlaw.
"What do you mean?"
"Call it a 'cave' if you like—I'm not proud, and I have a fancy for a quiet spot. But there's room enough for you in it—and food and wine. We'll have a bottle together. Don't look so frightened. I'll release you safe and sound when the ransom is paid, I take my oath."
Miss Netterville stared into the twilight. She might tell him that there was no one to ransom her; but if he believed the statement, he would probably be reckless how he treated her, she thought; her only safeguard was to leave him the illusion that her safety would be paid for heavily.
"How much do you demand?"
"I shall open my mouth jolly wide. You are a pretty woman—you would be very vexed if I put a low price on you!" He broke into a roar of laughter, and clasped her more caressingly.
His good humour was not without a reassuring effect. The scoundrel was very human, and her horror of him had partially subsided. Indeed, as they rode on in this close embrace, she marvelled that she could bear the ignominy of it with such fortitude.
It was a long ride; her thoughts wandered in it, and curious fancies crossed her mind. She thought of Aloysius, and wished that he were different. It occurred to her that it would be pleasant to be clasped to Aloysius like this—always with the proviso "if he were different"—and then she reflected that the ride itself would be pleasant if the brigand were a gentleman, and their embrace were right. Insensibly she yielded to it more and more. It grew less repugnant to her, and even—— With a shock she realised what she had been feeling, and shivered with self-disgust.
"We have arrived," said the brigand; he carried her inside. "It is nice to carry you, now that you don't struggle," he added.
On entering, she was plunged into darkness so intense that she could discern nothing whatever. Then she found herself borne into a cave illumined by pendant oil lamps, and furnished with considerable comfort. Beyond was a second cleft of light, and she perceived that the cave resembled a suite of rooms communicating with one another by means of apertures in the rock. The man who had assisted in her capture rejoined her now, and three others appeared, who saluted her with quiet satisfaction. There was no excitement, no hint of violence; to her surprise, her reception was as formal as if she had arrived at an inn—as formally as innkeepers the brigands prepared to keep her prisoner.
Excepting the captain! The captain, as has been seen, did his business with bonhomie. If not "the mildest mannered man that ever cut a throat," at least he was the most jovial. No gallant ever filled a lady's glass, or peeled her figs with more consideration, and when he told the company how valiantly she had defended herself, he testified to her prowess with so much humour that she couldn't restrain a smile.
At the same time, it was with no little trepidation that she found herself alone with him again when the meal was finished. It proved necessary, to confess that she had no friends in Greece with whom he could communicate, and, moreover, that none of her friends in England was in a position to ransom her; he twirled his moustache thoughtfully when she explained.
"No lover?" he questioned. "Rubbish, you mustn't tell me that you have no lover—a woman like you!"
"It is true," she declared.
"Nor a husband?"
"No; I was to have married, but I changed my mind."
"Diabole! he had no blood in his veins, or he would have carried you off, like me. Well, it seems that I have made a bungle, eh? Women are all liars, but every man is a fool once, and I believe you. So I have had a punch in the face for nothing? That's a nice thing!"
"I have a watch on," she suggested; "you can take that if you like." It was a little Swiss watch that had cost thirty shillings. He looked at it, and gave a shrug.
"Is that what you offer me to let you go? I think you are worth more."
"I have nothing else to offer. Besides, although I haven't any friends to pay a ransom, there are plenty of people to miss me; the search might not do me much good, but it would probably end in your being shot. As you can't hope to make any money by me, you'd be wise to set me free."
"You have brains, too, under that lovely hair," he remarked, appreciatively. "May I offer you a cigarette?"
"No," she said; but she eyed the packet wistfully, and wished that her case were in her pocket.
"Now you are being a little donkey! Why should I wait to drug you with a cigarette when I could tap you on the head with one of these?" He touched the pistols in the sash wound round his sturdy waist. "You see I am smoking them myself—take your choice among the lot!"
Miss Netterville and the brigand smoked in silence for a few moments. Then——
"Every man is a fool once," he repeated meditatively, "but there must be a limit to his folly. If I set you free like this, what sort of ass would you think me? No better than the wooer who let you change your mind!"
"I should think you had acted like a brave and generous fellow!"
"Ah, you want to flatter me into it, you cunning cat!" he said. "Do you know that I could love you desperately, my beauty with the yellow hair? I believe I fell in love with you when I felt your fist! I like you for having hit me—I should like you to hit me again. Come and hit me again, beauty with the yellow hair—or sing me a love song. Do you sing?"
"No," she murmured.
"It's a pity, for you are a passionate woman—you would have sung well. Why did you start?"
She had started to discover that this bandit knew her better than she had known herself until an hour ago. "I didn't start," she answered.
"Fire has no heat, and there is no water in the rivers; all things are as the right woman says," he rejoined. "So you did not start, beauty, though you have shaken the ash of your cigarette on to your knees! Well, I will sing to you instead. I will sing at your feet, while my poor comrades have only their cards to play with. It is good to be the captain sometimes—it is good to-night."
He twanged the strings, and broke into a serenade. The deep voice was untrained, but rich and sweet. After the first surprise, Miss Netterville forgot who it was that sang—it was an artist on the stage, a lover below a window; almost it was her own lover, whom she loved! The music knocked at her heart, and no trace of the smile that discomfited her so much was on the handsome face now—sentiment idealised the ruffian.
When he finished she was very pale.
"Are you as cold as the woman of the song?" he whispered.
"Yes," she muttered, "I am as cold."
"You lie," he cried, "you love me!" And the next instant she snatched a pistol from his sash.
"I'll kill myself!" she gasped.
She thought her wrist was broken as she dropped the weapon. He picked it up and paced the cave with agitation, smiting his chest, and ejaculating. Meanwhile, the English lady marvelled why she didn't loathe him.
"Will you go?" he exclaimed, suddenly. "You shall go now, if you wish it; I swear you shall be guided back. I love you, I adore you, I implore you to stay! Do you wish to go?"
She bowed her head—"I wish to go."
He called to the men, and she heard their wonderment, their departing footsteps—at last the clip-clop sound of hoofs outside. All this time the captain had stood brooding silently; now he raised his head, and she saw with emotion that tears were in his eyes.
"Good-bye, zoe mou," he said.
"Oh!" she faltered. "Did you really love me then?"
He opened his arms, and Miss Netterville gave herself to them with impetuous lips.
"All is ready for the lady!" came the shout.
"They are waiting for you," said the brigand sadly.
"There—there's no hurry for a minute," Miss Netterville heard herself reply.
Before she left him he assured her that her escort might be trusted; and no mishap befell her on the road. But she had lost her nerve; a few days later she returned to England, and—perhaps she no longer considered protection so superfluous—she married Aloysius the following month, thoughdid not deem it necessary to inform him of her adventure.
They have been married for some years now, and get on together as well as most people. Aloysius has obtained an excellent living, and the eldest of their children is a little son, who engrosses his mother's attention to the exclusion of archæology. If it were not for her son's favourite game, the vicar's wife might think less often of her strange experience; but the boy tilts his straw hat like a sombrero, and sticks a pop-gun in his sash, and pretends that the summer-house is the "brigands' cave." At such times, Aloysius remarks humorously that "a little brigand is inappropriate to a vicarage garden." And the lady's eyes are wide.