The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Seventeen
Westray played the rôle of rejected lover most conscientiously; he treated the episode of his refusal on strictly conventional lines. He assured himself and his mother that the light of his life was extinguished, that he was the most unhappy of mortals. It was at this time that he wrote some verses called "Autumn," with a refrain of—
"For all my hopes are cold and dead,
And fallen like the fallen leaves,"
which were published in the Clapton Methodist, and afterwards set to music by a young lady who wished to bind up another wounded heart. He attempted to lie awake of nights with indifferent success, and hinted in conversation at the depressing influence which insomnia exerts over its victims. For several meals in succession he refused to eat heartily of such dishes as he did not like, and his mother felt serious anxiety as to his general state of health. She inveighed intemperately against Anastasia for having refused her son, but then she would have inveighed still more intemperately had Anastasia accepted him. She wearied him with the portentous gloom which she affected in his presence, and quoted Lady Clara Vere de Vere's cruelty in turning honest hearts to gall, till even the rejected one was forced to smile bitterly at so inapposite a parallel.
Though Mrs Westray senior poured out the vials of her wrath on Anastasia for having refused to become Mrs Westray junior, she was at heart devoutly glad at the turn events had taken. At heart Westray could not have said whether he was glad or sorry. He told himself that he was deeply in love with Anastasia, and that this love was further ennobled by a chivalrous desire to shield her from evil; but he could not altogether forget that the unfortunate event had at least saved him from the unconventionality of marrying his landlady's niece. He told himself that his grief was sincere and profound, but it was possible that chagrin and wounded pride were after all his predominant feelings. There were other reflections which he thrust aside as indecorous at this acute stage of the tragedy, but which, nevertheless, were able to exercise a mildly consoling influence in the background. He would be spared the anxieties of early and impecunious marriage, his professional career would not be weighted by family cares, the whole world was once more open before him, and the slate clean. These were considerations which could not prudently be overlooked, though it would be unseemly to emphasise them too strongly when the poignancy of regret should dominate every other feeling.
He wrote to Sir George Farquhar, and obtained ten days' leave of absence on the score of indisposition; and he wrote to Miss Euphemia Joliffe to tell her that he intended to seek other rooms. From the first he had decided that this latter step was inevitable. He could not bear the daily renewal of regret, the daily opening of the wound that would be caused by the sight of Anastasia, or by such chance intercourse with her as further residence at Bellevue Lodge must entail. There is no need to speculate whether his decision was influenced in part by a concession to humiliated pride; men do not take pleasure in revisiting the scenes of a disastrous rout, and it must be admitted that the possibility of summoning a lost love to his presence when he rang for boiling water, had in it something of the grotesque. He had no difficulty in finding other lodgings by correspondence, and he spared himself the necessity of returning at all to his former abode by writing to ask Clerk Janaway to move his belongings.
One morning, a month later, Miss Joliffe sat in that room which had been occupied by the late Mr Sharnall. She was alone, for Anastasia had gone to the office of the Cullerne Advertiser with an announcement in which one A.J. intimated that she was willing to take a post as nursery-governess. It was a bright morning but cold, and Miss Joliffe drew an old white knitted shawl closer about her, for there was no fire in the grate. There was no fire because she could not afford it, yet the sun pouring in through the windows made the room warmer than the kitchen, where the embers had been allowed to die out since breakfast. She and Anastasia did without fire on these bright autumn days to save coals; they ate a cold dinner, and went early to bed for the same reason, yet the stock in the cellar grew gradually less. Miss Joliffe had examined it that very morning, and found it terribly small; nor was there any money nor any credit left with which to replenish it.
On the table before her was a pile of papers, some yellow, some pink, some white, some blue, but all neatly folded. They were folded lengthways and to the same breadth, for they were Martin Joliffe's bills, and he had been scrupulously neat and orderly in his habits. It is true that there were among them some few that she had herself contracted, but then she had always been careful to follow exactly her brother's method both of folding and also of docketing them on the exterior. Yes, no doubt she was immediately responsible for some, and she knew just which they were from the outside without any need to open them. She took up one of them: "Rose and Storey, importers of French millinery, flowers, feathers, ribbons, etcetera. Mantle and jacket show-rooms." Alas, alas! how frail is human nature! Even in the midst of her misfortunes, even in the eclipse of old age, such words stirred Miss Joliffe's interest—flowers, feathers, ribbons, mantles, and jackets; she saw the delightful show-room 19, 20, 21, and 22, Market Place, Cullerne—saw it in the dignified solitude of a summer morning when a dress was to be tried on, saw it in the crush and glorious scramble of a remnant sale. "Family and complimentary mourning, costumes, skirts, etcetera; foreign and British silks, guaranteed makes." After that the written entry seemed mere bathos: "Material and trimming one bonnet, 11s. and 9d.; one hat, 13s 6d. Total, £1 5s. 3d." It really was not worth while making a fuss about, and the bunch of cherries and bit of spangled net were well worth the 1s. 9d., that Anastasia's had cost more than hers.
Hole, pharmaceutical chemist: "Drops, 1s. 6d.; liniment, 1s.; mixture, 1s 9d.," repeated many times. "Cod-liver oil, 1s. 3d., and 2s. 6d., and 1s. 3d. again. £2 13s. 2d., with 4s. 8d. interest," for the bill was four years old. That was for Anastasia at a critical time when nothing seemed to suit her, and Dr Ennefer feared a decline; but all the medicine for poor Martin was entered in Dr Ennefer's own account.
Pilkington, the shoemaker, had his tale to tell: "Miss Joliffe: Semi-pold. lace boots, treble soles, £1 1s. 0d. Miss A. Jol.: Semi-pold. lace boots, treble soles, £1 1s. 0d. 6 pair mohair laces, 9d. 3 ditto, silk, 1s." Yes, she was indeed a guilty woman. It was she that had "run up" these accounts, and she grew red to think that her own hand should have helped to build so dismal a pile.
Debt, like every other habit that runs counter to the common good, brings with it its own punishment, because society protects itself by making unpleasant the ways of such as inconvenience their neighbours. It is true that some are born with a special talent and capacity for debt—they live on it, and live merrily withal, but most debtors feel the weight of their chains, and suffer greater pangs than those which they inflict on any defrauded creditor. If the millstone grinds slowly it grinds small, and undischarged accounts bring more pain than the goods to which they relate ever brought pleasure. Among such bitternesses surely most bitter are the bills for things of which the fruition has ceased—for worn-out finery, for withered flowers, for drunk wine. Pilkington's boots, were they never so treble soled, could not endure for ever, and Miss Joliffe's eyes followed unconsciously under the table to where a vertical fissure showed the lining white at the side of either boot. Where were new boots to come from now, whence was to come clothing to wear, and bread to eat?
Nay, more, the day of passive endurance was past; action had begun. The Cullerne Water Company threatened to cut off the water, the Cullerne Gas Company threatened to cut off the gas. Eaves, the milkman, threatened a summons unless that long, long bill of his (all built up of pitiful little pints) was paid forthwith. The Thing had come to the Triarii, Miss Joliffe's front was routed, the last rank was wavering. What was she to do, whither was she to turn? She must sell some of the furniture, but who would buy such old stuff? And if she sold furniture, what lodger would take half-empty rooms? She looked wildly round, she thrust her hands into the pile of papers, she turned them over with a feverish action, till she seemed to be turning hay once more as a little girl in the meadows at Wydcombe. Then she heard footsteps on the pavement outside, and thought for a moment that it was Anastasia returned before she was expected, till a heavy tread told her that a man was coming, and she saw that it was Mr Joliffe, her cousin, churchwarden and pork-butcher. His bulky and unwieldy form moved levelly past the windows; he paused and looked up at the house as if to make sure that he was not mistaken, and then he slowly mounted the semicircular flight of stone steps and rang the bell.
In person he was tall, but disproportionately stout for his height. His face was broad, and his loose double chin gave it a flabby appearance. A pallid complexion and black-grey hair, brushed straightly down where he was not bald, produced an impression of sanctimoniousness which was increased by a fawning manner of speech. Mr Sharnall was used to call him a hypocrite, but the aspersion was false, as such an aspersion commonly is.
Hypocrites, in the pure and undiluted sense, rarely exist outside the pages of fiction. Except in the lower classes, where deceit thrives under the incentive of clerical patronage, men seldom assume deliberately the garb of religion to obtain temporal advantages or to further their own ends. It is probable that in nine cases out of ten, where practice does not accord sufficiently with profession to please the censorious, the discrepancy is due to inherent weakness of purpose, to the duality of our nature, and not to any conscious deception. If a man leading the lower life should find himself in religious, or high-minded, or pure society, and speak or behave as if he were religious, or high-minded, or pure, he does so in nine cases out of ten not with any definite wish to deceive, but because he is temporarily influenced by better company. For the time he believes what he says, or has persuaded himself that he believes it. If he is froward with the froward, so he is just with the just, and the more sympathetic and susceptible his nature, the more amenable is he to temporary influences. It is this chameleon adaptability that passes for hypocrisy.
Cousin Joliffe was no hypocrite, he acted up to his light; and even if the light be a badly-trimmed, greasy, evil-smelling paraffin-lamp, the man who acts up to it is only the more to be pitied. Cousin Joliffe was one of those amateur ecclesiastics whose talk is of things religious, whom Church questions interest, and who seem to have missed their vocation in not having taken Orders. If Canon Parkyn had been a High Churchman, Cousin Joliffe would have been High Church; but the Canon being Low-Church, Cousin Joliffe was an earnest evangelical, as he delighted to describe himself. He was rector's churchwarden, took a leading part in prayer-meetings, with a keen interest in school-treats, ham teas, and magic lanterns, and was particularly proud of having been asked more than once to assist in the Mission Room at Carisbury, where the Vicar of Christ Church carried on revival work among the somnolent surroundings of a great cathedral. He was without any sense of humour or any refinement of feeling—self-important, full of the dignity of his office, thrifty to meanness, but he acted up to his light, and was no hypocrite.
In that petty middle-class, narrow-minded and penuriously pretentious, which was the main factor of Cullerne life, he possessed considerable influence and authority. Among his immediate surroundings a word from Churchwarden Joliffe carried more weight than an outsider would have imagined, and long usage had credited him with the delicate position of censor morum to the community. Did the wife of a parishioner venture into such a place of temptation as the theatre at Carisbury, was she seen being sculled by young Bulteel in his new skiff of a summer evening, the churchwarden was charged to interview her husband, to point out to him privately the scandal that was being caused, and to show him how his duty lay in keeping his belongings in better order. Was a man trying to carry fire in his bosom by dalliance at the bar of the Blandamer Arms, then a hint was given to his spouse that she should use such influence as would ensure evenings being spent at home. Did a young man waste the Sabbath afternoon in walking with his dog on Cullerne Flat, he would receive "The Tishbite's Warning, a Discourse showing the Necessity of a Proper Observance of the Lord's Day." Did a pig-tailed hoyden giggle at the Grammar School boys from her pew in the minster, the impropriety was reported by the churchwarden to her mother.
On such occasions he was scrupulous in assuming a frock-coat and a silk hat. Both were well-worn, and designed in the fashion of another day; but they were in his eyes insignia of office, and as he felt the tails of the coat about his knees they seemed to him as it were the skirts of Aaron's garment. Miss Joliffe was not slow to notice that he was thus equipped this morning; she knew that he had come to pay her a visit of circumstance, and swept her papers hurriedly into a drawer. She felt as if they were guilty things these bills, as if she had been engaged in a guilty action in even "going through" them, as if she had been detected in doing that which she should not do, and guiltiest of all seemed the very hurry of concealment with which she hid such compromising papers.
She tried to perform that feat of mental gymnastics called retaining one's composure, the desperate and forced composure which the coiner assumes when opening the door to the police, the composure which a woman assumes in returning to her husband with the kisses of a lover tingling on her lips. It is a feat to change the current of the mind, to let the burning thought that is dearest or bitterest to us go by the board, to answer coherently to the banalities of conversation, to check the throbbing pulse. The feat was beyond Miss Joliffe's powers; she was but a poor actress, and the churchwarden saw that she was ill at ease as she opened the door.
"Good-morning, cousin," he said with one of those interrogative glances which are often more irritating and more difficult to parry than a direct question; "you are not looking at all the thing this morning. I hope you are not feeling unwell; I hope I do not intrude."
"Oh no," she said, making as good an attempt at continuous speech as the quick beating of her heart allowed; "it is only that your visit is a little surprise. I am a little flurried; I am not quite so young as I was."
"Ay," he said, as she showed him into Mr Sharnall's room, "we are all of us growing older; it behoves us to walk circumspectly, for we never know when we may be taken." He looked at her so closely and compassionately that she felt very old indeed; it really seemed as if she ought to be "taken" at once, as if she was neglecting her duty in not dying away incontinently. She drew the knitted shawl more tightly round her spare and shivering body.
"I am afraid you will find this room a little cold," she said; "we are having the kitchen chimney cleaned, so I was sitting here." She gave a hurried glance at the bureau, feeling a suspicion that she might not have shut the drawer tight, or that one of the bills might have somehow got left out. No, all was safe, but her excuse had not deceived the churchwarden.
"Phemie," he said, not unkindly, though the word brought tears to her eyes, for it was the first time that anyone had called her by the old childhood name since the night that Martin died—"Phemie, you should not stint yourself in fires. It is a false economy; you must let me send you a coal ticket."
"Oh no, thank you very much; we have plenty," she cried, speaking quickly, for she would rather have starved outright, than that it should be said a member of the Dorcas Society had taken a parish coal ticket. He urged her no more, but took the chair that she offered him, feeling a little uncomfortable withal, as a well-clothed and overfed man should, in the presence of penury. It was true he had not been to see her for some time; but, then, Bellevue Lodge was so far off, and he had been so pressed with the cares of the parish and of his business. Besides that, their walks of life were so different, and there was naturally a strong objection to any kinswoman of his keeping a lodging-house. He felt sorry now that compassion had betrayed him into calling her "cousin" and "Phemie"; she certainly was a distant kinswoman, but not, he repeated to himself, a cousin; he hoped she had not noticed his familiarity. He wiped his face with a pocket-handkerchief that had seen some service, and gave an introductory cough.
"There is a little matter on which I should like to have a few words with you," he said, and Miss Joliffe's heart was in her mouth; he had heard, then, of these terrible debts and of the threatened summons.
"Forgive me if I go direct to business. I am a business man and a plain man, and like plain speaking."
It is wonderful to what rude remarks, and unkind remarks and untrue remarks such words as these commonly form the prelude, and how very few of these plain speakers enjoy being plainly spoken to in turn.
"We were talking just now," he went on, "of the duty of walking circumspectly, but it is our duty, Miss Joliffe, to see that those over whom we are set in authority walk circumspectly as well. I mean no reproach to you, but others beside me think it would be well that you should keep closer watch over your niece. There is a nobleman of high station that visits much too often at this house. I will not name any names"—and this with a tone of magnanimous forbearance—"but you will guess who I mean, because the nobility is not that frequent hereabout. I am sorry to have to speak of such things which ladies generally see quick enough for themselves, but as churchwarden I can't shut my ears to what is matter of town talk; and more by token when a namesake of my own is concerned."
The composure which Miss Joliffe had been seeking in vain, came back to her at the pork-butcher's words, partly in the relief that he had not broached the subject of debts which had been foremost in her mind, partly in the surprise and indignation occasioned by his talk of Anastasia. Her manner and very appearance changed, and none would have recognised the dispirited and broken-down old lady in the sharpness of her rejoinder.
"Mr Joliffe," she apostrophised with tart dignity, "you must forgive me for thinking that I know a good deal more about the nobleman in question than you do, and I can assure you he is a perfect gentleman. If he has visited this house, it has been to see Mr Westray about the restoration of the minster. I should have thought one that was churchwarden would have known better than to go bandying scandals about his betters; it is small encouragement for a nobleman to take an interest in the church if the churchwarden is to backbite him for it."
She saw that her cousin was a little taken aback, and she carried the war into the enemy's country, and gave another thrust.
"Not but what Lord Blandamer has called upon me too, apart from Mr Westray. And what have you to say to that? If his lordship has thought fit to honour me by drinking a cup of tea under my roof, there are many in Cullerne would have been glad to get out their best china if he had only asked himself to their houses. And there are some might well follow his example, and show themselves a little oftener to their friends and relations."
The churchwarden wiped his face again, and puffed a little.
"Far be it from me," he said, dwelling on the expression with all the pleasure that a man of slight education takes in a book phrase that he has got by heart—"far be it from me to set scandals afloat—'twas you that used the word scandal—but I have daughters of my own to consider. I have nothing to say against Anastasia, who, I believe, is a good girl enough"—and his patronising manner grated terribly on Miss Joliffe—"though I wish I could see her take more interest in the Sunday-school, but I won't hide from you that she has a way of carrying herself and mincing her words which does not befit her station. It makes people take notice, and 'twould be more becoming she should drop it, seeing she will have to earn her own living in service. I don't want to say anything against Lord Blandamer either—he seems to be well-intentioned to the church—but if tales are true the old lord was no better than he should be, and things have happened before now on your side of the family, Miss Joliffe, that make connections feel uncomfortable about Anastasia. We are told that the sins of the fathers will be visited to the third and fourth generation."
"Well," Miss Joliffe said, and made a formidable pause on this adverb, "if it is the manners of your side of the family to come and insult people in their own houses, I am glad I belong to the other side."
She was alive to the profound gravity of such a sentiment, yet was prepared to take her stand upon it, and awaited another charge from the churchwarden with a dignity and confidence that would have become the Old Guard. But no fierce passage of arms followed; there was a pause, and if a dignified ending were desired the interview should here have ended. But to ordinary mortals the sound of their own voices is so musical as to deaden any sense of anticlimax; talking is continued for talking's sake, and heroics tail off into desultory conversation. Both sides were conscious that they had overstated their sentiments, and were content to leave main issues undecided.
Miss Joliffe did not take the bills out of their drawer again after the churchwarden had left her. The current of her ideas had been changed, and for the moment she had no thought for anything except the innuendoes of her visitor. She rehearsed to herself without difficulty the occasions of Lord Blandamer's visits, and although she was fully persuaded that any suspicions as to his motives were altogether without foundation, she was forced to admit that he had been at Bellevue Lodge more than once when she had been absent. This was no doubt a pure coincidence, but we were enjoined to be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves, and she would take care that no further occasion was given for idle talk.
Anastasia on her return found her aunt unusually reserved and taciturn. Miss Joliffe had determined to behave exactly as usual to Anastasia because her niece was entirely free from fault; but she was vexed at what the churchwarden had said, and her manner was so mysterious and coldly dignified as to convince Anastasia that some cause for serious annoyance had occurred. Did Anastasia remark that it was a close morning, her aunt looked frowningly abstracted and gave no reply; did Anastasia declare that she had not been able to get any 14 knitting-needles, they were quite out of them, her aunt said, "Oh!" in a tone of rebuke and resignation which implied that there were far more serious matters in the world than knitting-needles.
This dispensation lasted a full half-hour, but beyond that the kindly old heart was quite unequal to supporting a proper hauteur. The sweet warmth of her nature thawed the chilly exterior; she was ashamed of her moodiness, and tried to "make up" for it to Anastasia by manifestation of special affection. But she evaded her niece's attempts at probing the matter, and was resolved that the girl should know nothing of Cousin Joliffe's suggestions or even of the fact of his visit.
But if Anastasia knew nothing of these things, she was like to be singular in her ignorance. All Cullerne knew; it was in the air. The churchwarden had taken a few of the elders into his confidence, and asked their advice as to the propriety of his visit of remonstrance. The elders, male and female, heartily approved of his action, and had in their turn taken into confidence a few of their intimate and specially-to-be-trusted friends. Then ill-natured and tale-bearing Miss Sharp told lying and mischief-making Mrs Flint, and lying and mischief-making Mrs Flint talked the matter over at great length with the Rector, who loved all kinds of gossip, especially of the highly-spiced order. It was speedily matter of common knowledge that Lord Blandamer was at the Hand of God (so ridiculous of a lodging-house keeper christening a public-house Bellevue Lodge!) at all hours of the day and night, and that Miss Joliffe was content to look at the ceiling on such occasions; and worse, to go to meetings so as to leave the field undisturbed (what intolerable hypocrisy making an excuse of the Dorcas meetings!); that Lord Blandamer loaded—simply loaded—that pert and good-for-nothing girl with presents; that even the young architect was forced to change his lodgings by such disreputable goings-on. People wondered how Miss Joliffe and her niece had the effrontery to show themselves at church on Sundays; the younger creature, at least, must have some sense of shame left, for she never ventured to exhibit in public either the fine dresses or the jewellery that her lover gave her.
Such stories came to Westray's ears, and stirred in him the modicum of chivalry which leavens the lump of most men's being. He was still smarting under his repulse, but he would have felt himself disgraced if he had allowed the scandal to pass unchallenged, and he rebutted it with such ardour that people shrugged their shoulders, and hinted that there had been something between him, too, and Anastasia.
Clerk Janaway was inclined to take a distressingly opportunist and matter-of-fact view of the question. He neither reprobated nor defended. In his mind the Divine right of peers was firmly established. So long as they were rich and spent their money freely, we should not be too particular. They were to be judged by standards other than those of common men; for his part, he was glad they had got in place of an old curmudgeon a man who would take an interest in the Church, and spend money on the place and the people. If he took a fancy to a pretty face, where was the harm? 'Twas nothing to the likes of them, best let well alone; and then he would cut short the churchwarden's wailings and godly lamentations by "decanting" on the glories of Fording, and the boon it was to the countryside to have the place kept up once more.
"Clerk Janaway, your sentiments do you no credit," said the pork-butcher on one such occasion, for he was given to gossip with the sexton on terms of condescending equality. "I have seen Fording myself, having driven there with the Carisbury Field Club, and felt sure it must be a source of temptation if not guarded against. That one man should live in such a house is an impiety; he is led to go about like Nebuchadnezzar, saying: 'Is not this great Babylon that I have builded?'"
"He never builded it," said the clerk with some inconsequence; "'twere builded centuries ago. I've heard 'tis that old no one don't know who builded it. Your parents was Dissenters, Mr Joliffe, and never taught you the Catechism when you was young; but as for me, I order myself to my betters as I should, so long as they orders themselves to me. 'Taint no use to say as how we're all level; you've only got to go to Mothers' Meetings, my old missus says, to see that. 'Tis no use looking for too much, nor eating salt with red herrings."
"Well, well," the other deprecated, "I'm not blaming his lordship so much as them that lead him on."
"Don't go for to blame the girl, neither, too hardly; there's faults on both sides. His grandfather didn't always toe the line, and there were some on her side didn't set too good an example, neither. I've seen many a queer thing in my time, and have got to think blood's blood, and forerunners more to blame than children. If there's drink in fathers, there'll be drink in sons and grandsons till 'tis worked out; and if there's wild love in the mothers, daughters 'll likely sell their apples too. No, no, God-amighty never made us equal, and don't expect us all to be churchwardens. Some on us comes of virtuous forerunners, and are born with wings at the back of our shoulders like you"—and he gave a whimsical look at his listener's heavy figure—"to lift us up to the vaulting; and some on us our fathers fits out with lead soles to the bottom of our boots to keep us on the floor."
Saturday afternoon was Lord Blandamer's hour, and for three Saturdays running Miss Joliffe deserted the Dorcas meeting in order to keep guard at home. It rejoiced the moral hearts of ill-natured and tale-bearing Miss Sharp and of lying and mischief-making Mrs Flint that the disreputable old woman had at least the decency not to show herself among her betters, but such defection was a sore trial to Miss Joliffe. She told herself on each occasion that she could not make such a sacrifice again, and yet the love of Anastasia constrained her. To her niece she offered the patent excuse of being unwell, but the girl watched her with wonder and dismay chafe feverishly through the two hours, which had been immemorially consecrated to these meetings. The recurrence of a weekly pleasure, which seems so limitless in youth and middle age, becomes less inexhaustible as life turns towards sunset. Thirty takes lightly enough the foregoing of a Saturday reunion, the uncongenial spending of a Sunday; but seventy can see the end of the series, and grudges every unit of the total that remains.
For three Saturdays Miss Joliffe watched, and for three Saturdays no suspicious visitor appeared.
"We have seen nothing of Lord Blandamer lately," she would remark at frequent intervals with as much indifference as the subject would allow.
"There is nothing to bring him here now that Mr Westray has gone. Why should he come?"
Why, indeed, and what difference would it make to her if he never came again? These were questions that Anastasia had discussed with herself, at every hour of every day of those blank three weeks. She had ample time for such foolish discussions, for such vain imaginings, for she was left much to herself, having no mind-companions either of her own age or of any other. She was one of those unfortunate persons whose education and instincts' unfit them for their position. The diversions of youth had been denied her, the pleasures of dress or company had never been within her reach. For pastime she was turned back continually to her own thoughts, and an active imagination and much desultory reading had educated her in a school of romance, which found no counterpart in the life of Cullerne. She was proud at heart (and it is curious that those are often the proudest who in their neighbours' estimation have least cause for pride), but not conceited in manner in spite of Mr Joliffe's animadversion on the mincing of her words. Yet it was not her pride that had kept her from making friends, but merely the incompatibility of mental temperament, which builds the barrier not so much between education and ignorance, as between refinement and materialism, between romance and commonplace.
That barrier is so insurmountable that any attempt upon it must end in failure that is often pathetic from its very hopelessness; even the warmth of ardent affection has never yet succeeded in evolving a mental companionship from such discordant material. By kindly dispensation of nature the breadth of the gulf, indeed, is hidden from those who cannot cross it. They know it is there, they have some inkling of the difference of view, but they think that love may build a bridge across, or that in time they may find some other access to the further side. Sometimes they fancy that they are nearer to the goal, that they walk step and step with those they love; but this, alas! is not to be, because the mental sympathy, the touch of illumination that welds minds together, is wanting.
It was so with Miss Joliffe the elder—she longed to be near her niece, and was so very far away; she thought that they went hand in hand, when all the while a different mental outlook set them poles asunder. With all her thousand good honest qualities, she was absolutely alien to the girl; and Anastasia felt as if she was living among people of another nation, among people who did not understand her language, and she took refuge in silence.
The dulness of Cullerne had grown more oppressive to her in the last year. She longed for a life something wider, she longed for sympathy. She longed for what a tall and well-favoured maiden of her years most naturally desires, however much she may be ignorant of her desire; she longed for someone to admire her and to love her; she longed for someone about whom she could weave a romance.
The junior partner in Rose and Storey perhaps discerned her need, and tried to supply it. He paid her such odious compliments on the "hang of her things," that she would never have entered the shop again, were it not that Bellevue Lodge was bound hand and foot to Rose and Storey, for they were undertakers as well as milliners; and, besides, the little affair of the bonnets, the expenses of Martin's funeral, were still unsatisfied. There was a young dairy farmer, with a face like a red harvest moon, who stopped at her aunt's door on his way to market. He would sell Miss Joliffe eggs and butter at wholesale prices, and grinned in a most tiresome way whenever he caught sight of Anastasia. The Rector patronised her insufferably; and though old Mr Noot was kind, he treated her like a small child, and sometimes patted her cheek, which she felt to be disconcerting at eighteen.
And then the Prince of Romance appeared in Lord Blandamer. The moment that she first saw him on the doorstep that windy autumn afternoon, when yellow leaves were flying, she recognised him for a prince. The moment that he spoke to her she knew that he recognised her for a lady, and for this she felt unspeakably glad and grateful. Since then the wonder had grown. It grew all the faster from the hero's restraint. He had seen Anastasia but little, he spoke but little to her, he never gave her even a glance of interest, still less such glances as Westray launched at her so lavishly. And yet the wonder grew. He was so different from other men she had seen, so different from all the other people she had ever met. She could not have told how she knew this, and yet she knew. It must have been an atmosphere which followed him wherever he went—that penumbra with which the gods wrap heroes—which told her he was different.
The gambits of the great game of love are strangely limited, and there is little variation in the after-play. If it were not for the personal share we take, such doings would lack interest by reason of their monotony, by their too close resemblance to the primeval type. This is why the game seems dull enough to onlookers; they shock us with the callousness with which they are apt to regard our ecstasies. This is why the straightforward game palls sometimes on the players themselves after a while; and why they are led to take refuge from dulness in solving problems, in the tangled irregularities of the knight's move.
Anastasia would have smiled if she had been told that she had fallen in love; it might have been a thin smile, pale as winter's sunshine, but she would have smiled. It was impossible for her to fall in love, because she knew that kings no longer marry beggar-maids, and she was far too well brought up to fall in love, except as a preliminary to marriage. No heroine of Miss Austen would permit herself even to feel attraction to a quarter from which no offer of marriage was possible; therefore Anastasia could not have fallen in love. She certainly was not in the least in love, but it was true Lord Blandamer interested her. He interested her so much, in fact, as to be in her thoughts at all hours of the day; it was strange that no matter with what things her mind was occupied, his image should continually present itself. She wondered why this was; perhaps it was his power—she thought it was the feeling of his power, a very insolence of power that dominated all these little folk, and yet was most powerful in its restraint. She liked to think of the compact, close-knit body, of the curling, crisp, iron-grey hair, of the grey eyes, and of the hard, clear-cut face. Yes, she liked the face because it was hard, because it had a resolute look in it that said he meant to go whither he wished to go.
There was no doubt she must have taken considerable interest in him, for she found herself dreading to pronounce his name even in the most ordinary conversation, because she felt it difficult to keep her voice at the dead level of indifference. She dreaded when others spoke of him, and yet there was no other subject that occupied her so much. And sometimes when they talked of him she had a curious feeling of jealousy, a feeling that no one had a right even to talk of him except herself; and she would smile to herself with a little scornful smile, because she thought that she knew more about him, could understand him better than them all. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the arbitrament of Cullerne conversation did not rest with Anastasia, or there would have been but little talking at this time; for if it seemed preposterous that others should dare to discuss Lord Blandamer, it seemed equally preposterous that they should take an interest in discussing anything else.
She certainly was not in love; it was only the natural interest, she told herself, that anyone—anyone with education and refinement—must take in a strange and powerful character. Every detail about him interested her. There was a fascination in his voice, there was a melody in his low, clear voice that charmed, and made even trifling remarks seem important. Did he but say it was a rainy afternoon, did he but ask if Mr Westray were at home, there was such mystery in his tone that no rabbinical cabalist ever read more between the lines than did Miss Anastasia Joliffe. Even in her devotions thought wandered far from the pew where she and her aunt sat in Cullerne Church; she found her eyes looking for the sea-green and silver, for the nebuly coat in Abbot Vinnicomb's window; and from the clear light yellow of the aureole round John Baptist's head, fancy called up a whirl of faded lemon-coloured acacia leaves, that were in the air that day the hero first appeared.
Yet, if heart wavered, head stood firm. He should never know her interest in him; no word, no changing colour should ever betray her; he should never guess that agitation sometimes scarcely left her breath to make so short a rejoinder as "Good-night."
For three Saturdays, then, Miss Joliffe the elder sat on guard at Bellevue Lodge; for three Saturday afternoons in succession, she sat and chafed as the hours of the Dorcas meeting came and went. But nothing happened; the heavens remained in their accustomed place, the minster tower stood firm, and then she knew that the churchwarden had been duped, that her own judgment had been right, that Lord Blandamer's only motive for coming to her house had been to see Mr Westray, and that now Mr Westray was gone Lord Blandamer would come no more. The fourth Saturday arrived; Miss Joliffe was brighter than her niece had seen her for a calendar month.
"I feel a good deal better, my dear, this afternoon," she said; "I think I shall be able to go to the Dorcas meeting. The room gets so close that I have avoided going of late, but I think I shall not feel it too much to-day. I will just change, and put on my bonnet; you will not mind staying at home while I am away, will you?" And so she went.
Anastasia sat in the window-seat of the lower room. The sash was open, for the spring days were lengthening, and a soft, sweet air was moving about sundown. She told herself that she was making a bodice; an open workbox stood beside her, and there was spread around just such a medley of patterns, linings, scissors, cotton-reels, and buttons as is required for the proper and ceremonious carrying on of "work." But she was not working. The bodice itself, the very cause and spring of all these preparations, lay on her lap, and there, too, had fallen her hands. She half sat, half lay back on the window-seat, roaming in fancy far away, while she drank in the breath of the spring, and watched a little patch of transparent yellow sky between the houses grow pinker and more golden, as the sunset went on.
Then a man came down the street and mounted the steps in front of Bellevue Lodge; but she did not see him, because he was walking in from the country, and so did not pass her window. It was the door-bell that first broke her dreams. She slid down from her perch, and hastened to let her aunt in, for she had no doubt that it was Miss Joliffe who had come back from the meeting. The opening of the front-door was not a thing to be hurried through, for though there was little indeed in Bellevue Lodge to attract burglars, and though if burglars came they would surely select some approach other than the main entrance, yet Miss Joliffe insisted that when she was from home the door should be secured as if to stand a siege. So Anastasia drew the top bolt, and slipped the chain, and unlocked the lock. There was a little difficulty with the bottom bolt, and she had to cry out: "I am sorry for keeping you waiting; this fastening will stick." But it gave at last; she swung the heavy door back, and found herself face to face with Lord Blandamer.