The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Eighteen
They stood face to face, and looked at one another for a second. Anyone seeing those two figures silhouetted against the yellow sunset sky might have taken them for cousins, or even for brother and sister. They were both dressed in black, were both dark, and of nearly the same height, for though the man was not short, the girl was very tall.
The pause that Anastasia made was due to surprise. A little while ago it would have been a natural thing enough to open the door and find Lord Blandamer, but the month that had elapsed since last he came to Bellevue Lodge had changed the position. It seemed to her that she stood before him confessed, that he must know that all these weeks she had been thinking of him, had been wondering why he did not come, had been longing for him to come, that he must know the pleasure which filled her now because he was come back again. And if he knew all this, she, too, had learnt to know something, had learnt to know how great a portion of her thoughts he filled. This eating of the tree of knowledge had abashed her, for now her soul stood before her naked. Did it so stand naked before him too? She was shocked that she should feel this attraction where there could be no thought of marriage; she thought that she should die if he should ever guess that one so lowly had gazed upon the sun and been dazzled.
The pause that Lord Blandamer made was not due to surprise, for he knew quite well that it would be Anastasia who opened the door. It was rather that pause which a man makes who has undertaken a difficult business, and hesitates for a moment when it comes to the touch. She cast her eyes down to the ground; he looked full at her, looked at her from head to foot, and knew that his resolution was strong enough to carry to a conclusion the affair on which he had come. She spoke first.
"I am sorry my aunt is not at home," and kept her right hand on the edge of the open door, feeling grateful for any support. As the words came out she was relieved to find that it was indeed she herself who was speaking, that it was her own voice, and that her voice sounded much as usual.
"I am sorry she is not in," he said, and he, too, spoke after all in just those same low, clear tones to which she was accustomed—"I am sorry she is not in, but it was you that I came to see."
She said nothing; her heart beat so fast that she could not have spoken even in monosyllables. She did not move, but kept her hand still on the edge of the door, feeling afraid lest she should fall if she let it go.
"I have something I should like to say to you; may I come in?"
She hesitated for a moment, as he knew that she would hesitate, and then let him in, as he knew that she would let him in. He shut the heavy front-door behind them, and there was no talk now of turning locks or shooting bolts; the house was left at the mercy of any burglars who might happen to be thereabout.
Anastasia led the way. She did not take him into Mr Sharnall's old room, partly because she had left half-finished clothes lying there, and partly from the more romantic reflection that it was in Westray's room that they had met before. They walked through the hall and up the stairs, she going first and he following, and she was glad of the temporary respite which the long flights secured her. They entered the room, and again he shut the door behind them. There was no fire, and the window was open, but she felt as if she were in a fiery furnace. He saw her distress, but made as if he saw nothing, and pitied her for the agitation which he caused. For the past six months Anastasia had concealed her feelings so very well that he had read them like a book. He had watched the development of the plot without pride, or pleasure of success, without sardonic amusement, without remorse; with some dislike for a rôle which force of circumstances imposed on him, but with an unwavering resolve to walk the way which he had set before him. He knew the exact point which the action of the play had reached, he knew that Anastasia would grant whatever he asked of her.
They were standing face to face again. To the girl it all seemed a dream; she did not know whether she was waking or sleeping; she did not know whether she was in the body or out of the body. It was all a dream, but it was a delightful dream; there was no bitterness of reflection now, no anxiety, no regard for past or future, only utter absorption in the present moment. She was with the man who had possessed her thoughts for a month past; he had come back to her. She had not to consider whether she should ever see him again; he was with her now. She had not to think whether he was there for good or evil, she had lost all volition in the will of the man who stood before her; she was the slave of his ring, rejoicing in her slavery, and ready to do his bidding as all the other slaves of that ring.
He was sorry for the feelings which he had aroused, sorry for the affection he had stirred, sorry for the very love of himself that he saw written in her face. He took her hand in his, and his touch filled her with an exquisite content; her hand lay in his neither lifelessly nor entirely passively, yet only lightly returning the light pressure of his fingers. To her the situation was the supreme moment of a life; to him it was passionless as the betrothal piece in a Flemish window.
"Anastasia," he said, "you guess what it is I have to tell you; you guess what it is that I have to ask you."
She heard him speaking, and his voice was as delightful music in her delightful dream; she knew that he was going to ask something of her, and she knew that she would give him anything and all that he asked.
"I know that you love me," he went on, with an inversion of the due order of the proposition, and an assumption that would have been intolerable in anyone else, "and you know that I love you dearly." It was a proper compliment to her perspicuity that she should know already that he loved her, but his mind smiled as he thought how insufficient sometimes are the bases of knowledge. "I love you dearly, and am come to ask you to be my wife."
She heard what he said, and understood it; she had been prepared for his asking anything save this one thing that he had asked. The surprise of it overwhelmed her, the joy of it stunned her; she could neither speak nor move. He saw that she was powerless and speechless, and drew her closer to him. There was none of the impetuous eagerness of a lover in the action; he drew her gently towards him because it seemed appropriate to the occasion that he should do so. She lay for a minute in his arms, her head bent down, and her face hidden, while he looked not so much at her as above her. His eyes wandered over the mass of her dark-brown wavy hair that Mrs Flint said was not wavy by nature, but crimped to make her look like a Blandamer, and so bolster up her father's nonsensical pretensions. His eyes took full account of that wave and the silken fineness of her dark-brown hair, and then looked vaguely out beyond till they fell on the great flower-picture that hung on the opposite wall.
The painting had devolved upon Westray on Mr Sharnall's death, but he had not yet removed it, and Lord Blandamer's eyes rested on it now so fixedly, that he seemed to be thinking more of the trashy flowers and of the wriggling caterpillar, than of the girl in his arms. His mind came back to the exigencies of the situation.
"Will you marry me, Anastasia—will you marry me, dear Anstice?" The home name seemed to add a touch of endearment, and he used it advisedly. "Anstice, will you let me make you my wife?"
She said nothing, but threw her arms about his neck, and raised her face a little for the first time. It was an assent that would have contented any man, and to Lord Blandamer it came as a matter of course; he had never for a moment doubted her acceptance of his offer. If she had raised her face to be kissed, her expectation was gratified; he kissed her indeed, but only lightly on the brow, as actor may kiss actress on the stage. If anyone had been there to see, they would have known from his eyes that his thoughts were far from his body, that they were busied with somebody or something, that seemed to him of more importance than the particular action in which he was now engaged. But Anastasia saw nothing; she only knew that he had asked her to marry him, and that she was in his arms.
He waited a moment, as if wondering how long the present position would continue, and what was the next step to take; but the girl was the first to relieve the tension. The wildest intoxication of the first surprise was passing off, and with returning capacity for reflection a doubt had arisen that flung a shadow like a cloud upon her joy. She disengaged herself from his arms that strove in orthodox manner to retain her.
"Don't," she said—"don't. We have been too rash. I know what you have asked me. I shall remember it always, and love you for it to my dying day, but it cannot be. There are things you must know before you ask me. I do not think you would ask me if you knew all."
For the first time he seemed a little more in earnest, a little more like a man living life, a little less like a man rehearsing a part that he had got by heart. This was an unexpected piece of action, an episode that was not in his acting edition, that put him for the moment at a loss; though he knew it could not in any way affect the main issues of the play. He expostulated, he tried to take her hand again.
"Tell me what it is, child, that is troubling you," he said; "there can be nothing, nothing under heaven that could make me wish to unsay what I have said, nothing that could make us wish to undo what we have done. Nothing can rob me now of the knowledge that you love me. Tell me what it is."
"I cannot tell you," she answered him. "It is something I cannot tell; don't ask me. I will write it. Leave me now—please leave me; no one shall know that you have been here, no one must know what has passed between us."
Miss Joliffe came back from the Dorcas meeting a little downhearted and out of humour. Things had not gone so smoothly as usual. No one had inquired after her health, though she had missed three meetings in succession; people had received her little compliments and cheery small-talk with the driest of negatives or affirmatives; she had an uncomfortable feeling that she was being cold-shouldered. That high moralist, Mrs Flint, edged her chair away from the poor lady of set purpose, and Miss Joliffe found herself at last left isolated from all, except Mrs Purlin, the builder's wife, who was far too fat and lethargic to be anything but ignorantly good-natured. Then, in a fit of pained abstraction, Miss Joliffe had made such a bad calculation as entirely to spoil a flannel petticoat with a rheumatic belt and camphor pockets, which she had looked upon as something of a chef d'œuvre.
But when she got back to Bellevue Lodge her vexation vanished, and was entirely absorbed in solicitude for her niece.
Anstice was unwell, Anstice was quite ill, quite flushed, and complaining of headache. If Miss Joliffe had feigned indisposition for three Saturdays as an excuse for not leaving the house, Anastasia had little need for simulation on this the fourth Saturday. She was, in effect, so dazed by the event which had happened, and so preoccupied by her own thoughts, that she could scarcely return coherent replies to her aunt's questions. Miss Joliffe had rung and received no answer, had discovered that the front-door was unlocked, and had at last found Anastasia sitting forlorn in Mr Westray's room with the window open. A chill was indicated, and Miss Joliffe put her to bed at once.
Bed is a first aid that even ambulance classes have not entirely taught us to dispense with; it is, moreover, a poor man's remedy, being exceedingly cheap, if, indeed, the poor man is rich enough to have a bed at all. Had Anastasia been Miss Bulteel, or even Mrs Parkyn, or lying and mischief-making Mrs Flint, Dr Ennefer would have been summoned forthwith; but being only Anastasia, and having the vision of debt before her eyes, she prevailed on her aunt to wait to see what the night brought forth, before sending for the doctor. Meanwhile Dr Bed, infinitely cleverest and infinitely safest of physicians, was called in, and with him was associated that excellent general practitioner Dr Wait. Hot flannels, hot bottles, hot possets, and a bedroom fire were exhibited, and when at nine o'clock Miss Joliffe kissed her niece and retired for the night, she by no means despaired of the patient's speedy recovery from so sudden and unaccountable an attack.
Anastasia was alone; what a relief to be alone again, though she felt that such a thought was treasonable and unkind to the warm old heart that had just left her, to that warm old heart which yearned so deeply to her, but with which she had not shared her story! She was alone, and she lay a little while in quiet content looking at the fire through the iron bars at the foot of her bedstead. It was the first bedroom fire she had had for two years, and she enjoyed the luxury with a pleasure proportionate to its rarity. She was not sleepy, but grew gradually more composed, and was able to reflect on the letter which she had promised to write. It would be difficult, and she assured herself with much vigour that it must raise insurmountable obstacles, that they were obstacles which one in Lord Blandamer's position must admit to be quite insurmountable. Yes, in this letter she would write the colophon of so wondrous a romance, the epilogue of so amazing a tragedy. But it was her conscience that demanded the sacrifice, and she took the more pleasure in making it, because she felt at heart that the pound of flesh might never really after all be cut.
How thoroughly do we enjoy these sacrifices to conscience, these followings of honour's code severe, when we know that none will be mean enough to take us at our word! To what easily-gained heights of morality does it raise us to protest that we never could accept the gift that will eventually be forced into our reluctant hands, to insist that we regard as the shortest of loans the money which we never shall be called upon to repay. It was something of the same sort with Anastasia. She told herself that by her letter she would give the death-blow to her love, and perhaps believed what she told, yet all the while kept hope hidden at the bottom of the box, even as in the most real perils of a dream we sometimes are supported by the sub-waking sense that we are dreaming.
A little later Anastasia was sitting before her bedroom fire writing. It has a magic of its own—the bedroom fire. Not such a one as night by night warms hothouse bedrooms of the rich, but that which burns but once or twice a year. How the coals glow between the bars, how the red light shimmers on the black-lead bricks, how the posset steams upon the hob! Milk or tea, cocoa or coffee, poor commonplace liquids, are they not transmuted in the alembic of a bedroom fire, till they become nepenthe for a heartache or a philtre for romance? Ah, the romance of it, when youth forestalls to-morrow's conquest, when middle life forgets that yesterday is past for ever, when even querulous old age thinks it may still have its "honour and its toil"!
An old blue cloak, which served the turn of dressing-gown, had fallen apart in the exigencies of composition, and showed underlying tracts of white nightgown. Below, the firelight fell on bare feet resting on the edge of the brass fender till the heat made her curl up her toes, and above, the firelight contoured certain generous curves. The roundness and the bloom of maidenhood was upon her, that bloom so transient, so irreplaceable, that renders any attempt to simulate it so profoundly ludicrous. The mass of dark hair, which turned lying-and-mischief-making Mrs Flint so envious, was gathered behind with a bow of black ribbon, and hung loosely over the back of her chair. She sat there writing and rewriting, erasing, blotting, tearing up, till the night was far spent, till she feared that the modest resources of the papeterie would be exhausted before toil came to fruition.
It was finished at last, and if it was a little formal or high-flown, or stilted, is not a certain formality postulated on momentous occasions? Who would write that he was "delighted" to accept a bishopric? Who would go to a levée in a straw hat?
"Dear Lord Blandamer" (the letter ran),
"I do not know how I ought to write to you, for I have little experience of life to guide me. I thank you with all my heart for what you have told me. I am glad to think of it, and I always shall be. I believe there must be many strong reasons why you should not think of marrying me, yet if there are, you must know them far better than I, and you have disregarded them. But there is one reason that you cannot know, for it is known to very few; I hope it is known only to some of our own relations. Perhaps I ought not to write of it at all, but I have no one to advise me. I mean what is right, and if I am doing wrong you will forgive me, will you not? and burn this letter when you have read it.
"I have no right to the name I am called by; my cousins in the Market Place think we should use some other, but we do not even know what our real name would be. When my grandmother married old Mr Joliffe, she had already a son two or three years old. This son was my father, and Mr Joliffe adopted him; but my grandmother had no right to any but her maiden name. We never knew what that was, though my father tried all his life to find it out, and thought he was very near finding out when he fell into his last illness. We think his head must have been affected, for he used to say strange things about his parentage. Perhaps the thought of this disgrace troubled him, as it has often troubled me, though I never thought it would trouble me so much as now.
"I have not told my aunt about what you have said to me, and no one else shall ever know it, but it will be the sweetest memory to me of all my life.
"Your very sincere friend,
It was finished at last; she had slain all her hopes, she had slain her love. He would never marry her, he would never come near her again; but she had unburdened herself of her secret, and she could not have married him with that secret untold. It was three o'clock when she crept back again to bed. The fire had gone out, she was very cold, and she was glad to get back to her bed. Then Nature came to her aid and sent her kindly sleep, and if her sleep was not dreamless, she dreamt of dresses, and horses, and carriages, of men-servants, and maid-servants, of Lady Blandamer's great house of Fording, and of Lady Blandamer's husband.
Lord Blandamer also sat up very late that night. As he read before another bedroom fire he turned the pages of his book with the utmost regularity; his cigar never once went out. There was nothing to show that his thoughts wandered, nothing to show that his mind was in any way preoccupied. He was reading Eugenid's "Aristeia" of the pagans martyred under Honorius; and weighed the pros and cons of the argument as dispassionately as if the events of the afternoon had never taken place, as if there had been no such person as Anastasia Joliffe in the world.
Anastasia's letter reached him the next day at lunch, but he finished his meal before opening it. Yet he must have known whence it came, for there was a bold "Bellevue Lodge" embossed in red on the flap of the envelope. Martin Joliffe had ordered stamped paper and envelopes years ago, because he said that people of whom he made genealogical inquiries paid more attention to stamped than to plain paper—it was a credential of respectability. In Cullerne this had been looked upon as a gross instance of his extravagance; Mrs Bulteel and Canon Parkyn alone could use headed paper with propriety, and even the rectory only printed, and did not emboss. Martin had exhausted his supply years ago, and never ordered a second batch, because the first was still unpaid for; but Anastasia kept by her half a dozen of these fateful envelopes. She had purloined them when she was a girl at school, and to her they were still a cherished remnant of gentility, that pallium under which so many of us would fain hide our rags. She had used one on this momentous occasion; it seemed a fitting cover for despatches to Fording, and might divert attention from the straw paper on which her letter was written.
Lord Blandamer had seen the Bellevue Lodge, had divined the genesis of the embossed inscription, had unravelled all Anastasia's thoughts in using it, yet let the letter lie till he had finished lunch. When he read it afterwards he criticised it as he might the composition of a stranger, as a document with which he had no very close concern. Yet he appreciated the effort which it must have cost the girl to write it, was touched by her words, and felt a certain grave compassion for her. But it was the strange juggle of circumstance, the Sophoclean irony of a position of which he alone held the key, that most impressed themselves upon his mood.
He ordered his horse, and took the road to Cullerne, but his agent met him before he had passed the first lodge, and asked some further instructions for the planting at the top of the park. So he turned and rode up to the great belt of beeches which was then being planted, and was so long engaged there that dusk forced him to abandon his journey to the town. He rode back to Fording at a foot-pace, choosing devious paths, and enjoying the sunset in the autumn woods. He would write to Anastasia, and put off his visit till the next day.
With him there was no such wholesale destruction of writing-paper as had attended Anastasia's efforts on the previous night. One single sheet saw his letter begun and ended, a quarter of an hour sufficed for committing his sentiments very neatly to writing; he flung off his sentences ῥηιδίως, as easily as Odysseus tossed his heavy stone beyond all the marks of the Phaeacians:
"My dearest Child,
"I need not speak now of the weary hours of suspense which I passed in waiting for your letter. They are over, and all is sunshine after the clouds. I need not tell you how my heart beat when I saw an envelope with your address, nor how eagerly my fingers tore it open, for now all is happiness. Thank you, a thousand times thank you for your letter; it is like you, all candour, all kindness, and all truth. Put aside your scruples; everything that you say is not a featherweight in the balance; do not trouble about your name in the past, for you will have a new name in the future. It is not I, but you, who overlook obstacles, for have you not overlooked all the years that lie between your age and mine? I have but a moment to scribble these lines; you must forgive their weakness, and take for said all that should be said. I shall be with you to-morrow morning, and till then am, in all love and devotion,
He did not even read it through before he sealed it up, for he was in a hurry to get back to Eugenid and to the "Aristeia" of the heathens martyred under Honorius.
Two days later, Miss Joliffe put on her Sunday mantle and bonnet in the middle of the week, and went down to the Market Place to call on her cousin the pork-butcher. Her attire at once attracted attention. The only justification for such extravagance would be some parish function or festivity, and nothing of that sort could be going on without the knowledge of the churchwarden's family. Nor was it only the things which she wore, but the manner in which she wore them, that was so remarkable. As she entered the parlour at the back of the shop, where the pork-butcher's lady and daughters were sitting, they thought that they had never seen their cousin look so well dressed. She had lost the pinched, perplexed, down-trodden air which had overcast her later years; there was in her face a serenity and content which communicated itself in some mysterious way even to her apparel.
"Cousin Euphemia looks quite respectable this morning," whispered the younger to the elder daughter; and they had to examine her closely before they convinced themselves that only a piece of mauve ribbon in her bonnet was new, and that the coat and dress were just the same as they had seen every Sunday for two years past.
With "nods and becks and wreathed smiles" Miss Euphemia seated herself. "I have just popped in," she began, and the very phrase had something in it so light and flippant that her listeners started—"I have just popped in for a minute to tell you some news. You have always been particular, my dears, that no one except your branch had a right to the name of Joliffe in this town. You can't deny, Maria," she said deprecatingly to the churchwarden's wife, "that you have always held out that you were the real Joliffes, and been a little sore with me and Anstice for calling ourselves by what we thought we had a right to. Well, now there will be one less outside your family to use the name of Joliffe, for Anstice is going to give it up. Somebody has offered to find another name for her."
The real Joliffes exchanged glances, and thought of the junior partner in the drapery shop, who had affirmed with an oath that Anastasia Joliffe did as much justice to his goods as any girl in Cullerne; and thought again of the young farmer who was known for certain to let Miss Euphemia have eggs at a penny cheaper than anyone else.
"Yes, Anstice is going to change her name, so that will be one grievance the less. And another thing that will make matters straighter between us, Maria: I can promise the little bit of silver shall never go out of the family. You know what I mean—the teapot and the spoons marked with 'J' that you've always claimed for yours by right. I shall leave them all back to you when my time comes; Anstice will never want such odds and ends in the station to which she's called now."
The real Joliffes looked at each other again, and thought of young Bulteel, who had helped Anastasia with the gas-standards when the minster was decorated at Christmas. Or was it possible that her affected voice and fine lady airs had after all caught Mr Westray, that rather good-looking and interesting young man, on whom both the churchwarden's daughters were not without hopes of making an impression?
Miss Joliffe enjoyed their curiosity; she was in a teasing and mischievous mood, to which she had been a stranger for thirty years.
"Yes," she said, "I am one that like to own up to it when I make a mistake, and I will state I have made a mistake. I suppose I must take to spectacles; it seems I cannot see things that are going on under my very eyes—no, not even when they are pointed out to me. I've come round to tell you, Maria, one and all, that I was completely mistaken when I told the churchwarden that it was not on Anstice's account that Lord Blandamer has been visiting at Bellevue Lodge. It seems it was just for that he came, and the proof of it is he's going to marry her. In three weeks' time she will be Lady Blandamer, and if you want to say goodbye to her you'd better come back and have tea with me now, for she's packed her box, and is off to London to-morrow. Mrs Howard, who keeps the school in Carisbury where Anstice went in dear Martin's lifetime, will meet her and take charge of her, and get her trousseau. Lord Blandamer has arranged it all, and he is going to marry Anstice and take her for a long tour on the Continent, and I'm sure I don't know where else."
It was all true. Lord Blandamer made no secret of the matter, and his engagement to Anastasia, only child of the late Martin Joliffe, Esquire, of Cullerne, was duly announced in the London papers. It was natural that Westray should have known vacillation and misgiving before he made up his mind to offer marriage. It is with a man whose family or position are not strong enough to bear any extra strain, that public opinion plays so large a part in such circumstances. If he marries beneath him he falls to the wife's level, because he has no margin of resource to raise her to his own. With Lord Blandamer it was different: his reliance upon himself was so great, that he seemed to enjoy rather than not, the flinging down of a gauntlet to the public in this marriage.
Bellevue Lodge became a centre of attraction. The ladies who had contemned a lodging-house keeper's daughter courted the betrothed of a peer. From themselves they did not disguise the motive for this change, they did not even attempt to find an excuse in public. They simply executed their volte face simultaneously and with most commendable regularity, and felt no more reluctance or shame in the process than a cat feels in following the man who carries its meat. If they were disappointed in not seeing Anastasia herself (for she left for London almost immediately after the engagement was made public), they were in some measure compensated by the extreme readiness of Miss Euphemia to discuss the matter in all its bearings. Each and every detail was conscientiously considered and enlarged upon, from the buttons on Lord Blandamer's boots to the engagement-ring on Anastasia's finger; and Miss Joliffe was never tired of explaining that this last had an emerald—"A very large emerald, my dear, surrounded by diamonds, green and white being the colours of his lordship's shield, what they call the nebuly coat, you know."
A variety of wedding gifts found their way to Bellevue Lodge. "Great events, such as marriages and deaths, certainly do call forth the sympathy of our neighbours in a wonderful way," Miss Joliffe said, with all the seriousness of an innocent belief in the general goodness of mankind. "Till Anstice was engaged, I never knew, I am sure, how many friends I had in Cullerne." She showed "the presents" to successive callers, who examined them with the more interest because they had already seen most of them in the shop-windows of Cullerne, and so were able to appreciate the exact monetary outlay with which their acquaintances thought it prudent to conciliate the Fording interest. Every form of useless ugliness was amply represented among them— vulgarity masqueraded as taste, niggardliness figured as generosity—and if Miss Joliffe was proud of them as she forwarded them from Cullerne, Anastasia was heartily ashamed of them when they reached her in London.
"We must let bygones be bygones," said Mrs Parkyn to her husband with truly Christian forbearance, "and if this young man's choice has not fallen exactly where we could have wished, we must remember, after all, that he is Lord Blandamer, and make the best of the lady for his sake. We must give her a present; in your position as Rector you could not afford to be left out. Everyone, I hear, is giving something."
"Well, don't let it be anything extravagant," he said, laying down his paper, for his interest was aroused by any question of expense. "A too costly gift would be quite out of place under the circumstances. It should be rather an expression of goodwill to Lord Blandamer than anything of much intrinsic value."
"Of course, of course. You may trust me not to do anything foolish. I have my eye on just the thing. There is a beautiful set of four salt-cellars with their spoons at Laverick's, in a case lined with puffed satin. They only cost thirty-three shillings, and look worth at least three pounds."