With a Difference
WITH A DIFFERENCE
BY E. NESBIT
Adventures are to the adventurous. Which, I suppose, means, if it means anything, that you get what you expect; that if you keep your eyes open, you will probably see what you are looking out for; and that, in a general way, Life will give you what you ask of her, if only you ask long enough and plainly enough. At the same time the prayer to life must be the soul's sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed—the motion of that hidden fire, and so on. Though to all prayers the answer usually comes 'with a difference.'
It is usual to suppose that the fires of chivalry which are the beacons of adventure burn best on the altar of a soul enshrined in a fine temple. That, in fact, your born adventurer is a handsome dashing blade, the sort that men stand by and women turn to look after in the street. This, though a good general rule, has exceptions. The young man whom you are now to see topping the steep hill cut in the chalk of the downs, lacked almost all the physical attributes which we are accustomed to ascribe to the heroes of adventure. He was neither conspicuously tall nor noticeably handsome. His hair was a little too long, and the shabby knapsack that bent his narrow shoulders bulged with more things than a hero, the favorite of fortune, would ever have found need for. To the hero for whom agreeable and exciting adventures lurk in every hedge and by every wayside, a rough blanket, a kettle, and half a dozen pet books would merely be in the way; but to this young man, a clerk taking his holiday in the cheapest possible fashion by a long tramp across the sunny Southern counties, they were necessities. His mouth and his hands were the mouth and the hands of a dreamer, but nothing else in him betrayed his kinship to the brotherhood of the Romantics, save the eyes that questioned the face of the world, as a dog's eyes question the face of his master. And these contradicted all the rest of him. From these, if you ever noticed anything and had any sort of skill in that most useful arithmetical act called putting two and two together, you might have deduced all those characteristics so resolutely denied by his general appearance.
As his feet felt the relief of the downward slope, he drew himself up, shifted a little the straps of the bloated knapsack and stepped forward more briskly. Behind him lay the long curved miles of dusty road that had held for him nothing but dust and dreams, before him the straight white ribbon of road that might hold so many things. The mighty rounded shoulders of the downs lay close against a very blue sky; white clouds sailed across that sky, and their shadows sailed across the valley where a light wind stirred the infrequent trees and dappled the face of the yellow standing corn. The young man drew a long breath of pleasure. A little farmhouse, gray and yellowed with lichen, nestled in the hollow of the hill; the blue smoke curled lightly from its chimneys; in its garden one saw little hints of red and yellow and the blinding, dazzling gleam of something unexplained near the back door. The road swerved and brought him nearer. The red and yellow turned to hollyhocks and sunflowers, and the diamond dazzlement was just a tin bucket hanging on the palings by the back door. He smelt the wood-smoke as other people smell roses.
'Is n't it good?' he asked himself; 'is n't it the real right thing?' And a pang of pleasure came to him at the thought of the man who should own that house, should come home to it from his good clean field-work, through the glad little garden, to find in its sombre orderly kitchen some one waiting to whom he was the light of the eyes. In his thought, he, of course, was the man who should come home. The one who should be waiting was the one he had never met, never would meet. The thought of London rushed at him, London with the dusty ledgers and the gritty pavements, with submissive miserable people caught in its horrible machinery, whirled round and round, day by day, in a dreadful rush where nothing was, nor ever could be, worth while; and almost instantly he forbade himself the thought, and said slowly to himself again, 'the one I shall never meet.'
'But I will meet her,' he said suddenly and aloud, and set his teeth. After that the talk was just a dream of the ways he would travel till he should meet the one who would make everything worth while.
Life must have been listening when he spoke aloud, for within the hour he met her. She was riding a bicycle, steadily but slowly, for she came up the hill as he came down, and as they passed they looked at each other, and though he almost stopped, the moment was over almost before it had begun. She had a white dress, and a red rose at her breast.
'Why is n't it mediæval times?' he asked himself, 'when a knight would have to ask a fair lady what service he could render?'
And he was sorry, because the girl on the bicycle had just such eyes as she might have who should make everything worth while.
Then suddenly he turned and shouted after her.
'Hi!' he called unromantically, and turned and ran up the hill with a sudden sense that something not himself had taken the bit in its teeth.
'I can at least ask her the way,' he told himself, 'then I shall hear her voice.'
But she had not heard his. She had turned into a side road that led, grassy and untrodden, toward the white cliff of an old quarry. And here she dismounted, for the road was rough and stony. The thing that had taken the bit between its teeth dragged him after her. He would not shout again, he would catch her up. But the bicycle had shot ahead before she dismounted, and the distance between them lessened very slowly. Rounding the corner to a smoother surface, she remounted, and he felt that she was leaving him so that he should never see her again, and again he shouted; and this time she heard, started, swerved, and then before his eyes, with a hundred yards of track still between them, the bicycle staggered, recovered itself, tripped itself up in a cart-rut, and fell clattering to the ground, where it and its rider lay still in the sunshine.
'My God!' he said, 'that's my doing!' and he ran. You know the thought that clung to him as he ran, making his feet feel heavy as one's feet feel in nightmares.
As he drew near he saw that she and the bicycle lay in a heap, the glitter of metal and the white of her dress dazzling together. And when he was quite close he perceived that the bicycle had fallen on her, that her dress was caught in the pedal, that her eyes were shut, and that there was blood on her forehead.
'My God!' he said again, and set his hand to the bicycle. He could not get it away from her except by cutting the hem of her skirt. So he cut it and lifted the clattering thing away and laid it on its side.
'Are you hurt?' he said, and 'Oh, do speak!'
But she did not speak.
He looked round for water. There is no water on the south downs except the dew-ponds, and there was no dew-pond here. So he tumbled everything out of his knapsack, the tin kettle and the blanket and Lavengro and The Shropshire Lad and The Open Road and the things to eat in their sordid paper wrappings. Among the litter he found the soldier's water-bottle of cold tea, soaked a handkerchief—his last clean one—in that, and bathed her forehead. The cut was only a very little one, but still her eyes were closed and her lips very pale, like faded pink rose-leaves.
The sun shone down in careless splendor. There was no least shadow anywhere to which he could move her, even if he could have moved her, and even if he had not felt that he dared not move her. So he propped the bicycle up in a cart-rut close to her head and spread his blanket over it and so made a patch of shadow about her. Then he put more cold tea on her forehead, and took her hands which were very cold and rubbed them between his own, and wished that his hands had not been dirty with the dust of the road. And he looked at her, learning every line of her face by heart. 'For even if she is dead,' he said, 'she is so like the one who would have made everything worth while.'
Her hair was loosened by the fall, and he had taken away the hat that her fall had twisted awry, so that her pale face lay in her hair as in a dark nest, her brows were curved beautifully and he knew that the hidden eyes were gray.
He thought of going back to the farm for help, but it was two or three miles back. How could he leave her alone, insensible? Suppose tramps passed that way? He knelt in the dust, holding her hands. And with all his strength of will, all the force of his soul, he called to her to come back—not to be dead—to be alive and unhurt and happy as she had been so little a time before, when in passing on the road, with, a red rose at her breast, their eyes had met.
And at last it came to him that she was dead, and that all that could make his life worth while had come to him only to brush him with the cold wings of an inexorable retreat. She had never moved since her fall, and that seemed now a very long time ago. He laid her hands down, and they lay like hands of old carved ivory.
He put his hand very gently and reverently under her breast, and he could feel no least lightest heart-beat. Then he put his hand under her head and raised it a little. It fell heavily sideways, and the brown-stained handkerchief dropped off. Then he did what he will always repent but never regret. He bent his face nearer and nearer till at last his lips touched her forehead, her cold cheek, and, in the end, those pale soft lips of hers.
And, at that touch, her own lips stirred against his, which drew back guiltily. He saw the gray of those eyes that had been hidden. They looked straight into his, appealing, afraid, yet with what he took to be recognition.
'Dearest?' she said, and then the gray eyes closed again.
Be sure that now he did not kneel idly. Trembling, incredulous, yet thrilled in every fibre by the magic of the dream come true, he fetched his tin cup and poured a little of the tea into it and held it to her lips. She drank. Then he bathed her face again, and did for her all such office as common sense could dictate or love invent. For it was love. Do not doubt it. He never doubted that here was the one woman, his woman, and the touch of her lips on his had told him that for her he was the world's one man.
And presently, under his clumsy ministrations, she sat up, put back her hair and laughed rather weakly.
'I think I could walk now,' she said. 'How stupid of me to fall off, and to faint like that!'
He helped her to stand up.
'I live close here,' she said, no more; words were plainly difficult to her.
'If you'll take my arm,' he said softly, and she took it. But she walked very unsteadily and he had to put his arm round her as they went, and now and again her face brushed his shoulder.
Round the curve of the hill they came to a little house, just such another as the farm where the sunflowers and the holly-hocks were. They went up through the garden where the bees hummed and the mignonette smelt sweet, his arm still round her, and the joy of life in his blood singing the magic splendid song of love and youth, and heaven that stoops to earth, and impossible dreams come true. The song rang in his ears so that when, at the porch, she spoke, he heard only her voice and not her words.
She sank from his arm to the seat on the porch-side and spoke again.
'Thank you,' she said, 'I'm all right now.'
Through the open door he saw the hall with a tall clock and a stuffed owl in a glass case and a fox's brush and a rack of whips and sticks. He looked at these till she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the honeysuckle. And then his eyes took her again, loving every curve of chin and hands and shoulders and tired head.
'I will go back and fetch your bicycle,' he said at last; not meaning at all to say that, and yet glad of the least little service still left to do for her.
'Oh, but one of the men shall go,' she said, 'I want you to come in. I shall be quite all right in a minute, I can't let you go like this.'
So he stood waiting, still worshiping her with his eyes, till she looked up into his and said ever so frankly and kindly,—
'You must come in. I know my husband will want to thank you.'
So then he knew for whom had been her word and her lips in that moment on the borderland between the conscious and the unconscious, and how, though Life gives what we demand of her, she gives it ever with a difference. He got away. And he fetched her bicycle and stood it up against the gate of the garden where the mignonette and the honeysuckle smelt so sweet. The sun was still shining in careless splendor, and the rose she had worn lay withered on the threshold. And she had gone into her house now. And the door was shut.