THE VOYAGE OUT
The sun of that same day going down, dusk was saluted as usual at the hotel by an instantaneous sparkle of electric lights. The hours between dinner and bedtime were always difficult enough to kill, and the night after the dance they were further tarnished by the peevishness of dissipation. Certainly, in the opinion of Hirst and Hewet, who lay back in long arm–chairs in the middle of the hall, with their coffee–cups beside them, and their cigarettes in their hands, the evening was unusually dull, the women unusually badly dressed, the men unusually fatuous. Moreover, when the mail had been distributed half an hour ago there were no letters for either of the two young men. As every other person, practically, had received two or three plump letters from England, which they were now engaged in reading, this seemed hard, and prompted Hirst to make the caustic remark that the animals had been fed. Their silence, he said, reminded him of the silence in the lion–house when each beast holds a lump of raw meat in its paws. He went on, stimulated by this comparison, to liken some to hippopotamuses, some to canary birds, some to swine, some to parrots, and some to loathsome reptiles curled round the half–decayed bodies of sheep. The intermittent sounds—now a cough, now a horrible wheezing or throat–clearing, now a little patter of conversation—were just, he declared, what you hear if you stand in the lion–house when the bones are being mauled. But these comparisons did not rouse Hewet, who, after a careless glance round the room, fixed his eyes upon a thicket of native spears which were so ingeniously arranged as to run their points at you whichever way you approached them. He was clearly oblivious of his surroundings; whereupon Hirst, perceiving that Hewet’s mind was a complete blank, fixed his attention more closely upon his fellow–creatures. He was too far from them, however, to hear what they were saying, but it pleased him to construct little theories about them from their gestures and appearance.
Mrs. Thornbury had received a great many letters. She was completely engrossed in them. When she had finished a page she handed it to her husband, or gave him the sense of what she was reading in a series of short quotations linked together by a sound at the back of her throat. “Evie writes that George has gone to Glasgow. ‘He finds Mr. Chadbourne so nice to work with, and we hope to spend Christmas together, but I should not like to move Betty and Alfred any great distance (no, quite right), though it is difficult to imagine cold weather in this heat. . . . Eleanor and Roger drove over in the new trap. . . . Eleanor certainly looked more like herself than I’ve seen her since the winter. She has put Baby on three bottles now, which I’m sure is wise (I’m sure it is too), and so gets better nights. . . . My hair still falls out. I find it on the pillow! But I am cheered by hearing from Tottie Hall Green. . . . Muriel is in Torquay enjoying herself greatly at dances. She is going to show her black put after all.’ . . . A line from Herbert—so busy, poor fellow! Ah! Margaret says, ‘Poor old Mrs. Fairbank died on the eighth, quite suddenly in the conservatory, only a maid in the house, who hadn’t the presence of mind to lift her up, which they think might have saved her, but the doctor says it might have come at any moment, and one can only feel thankful that it was in the house and not in the street (I should think so!). The pigeons have increased terribly, just as the rabbits did five years ago . . .’” While she read her husband kept nodding his head very slightly, but very steadily in sign of approval.
Near by, Miss Allan was reading her letters too. They were not altogether pleasant, as could be seen from the slight rigidity which came over her large fine face as she finished reading them and replaced them neatly in their envelopes. The lines of care and responsibility on her face made her resemble an elderly man rather than a woman. The letters brought her news of the failure of last year’s fruit crop in New Zealand, which was a serious matter, for Hubert, her only brother, made his living on a fruit farm, and if it failed again, of course, he would throw up his place, come back to England, and what were they to do with him this time? The journey out here, which meant the loss of a term’s work, became an extravagance and not the just and wonderful holiday due to her after fifteen years of punctual lecturing and correcting essays upon English literature. Emily, her sister, who was a teacher also, wrote: “We ought to be prepared, though I have no doubt Hubert will be more reasonable this time.” And then went on in her sensible way to say that she was enjoying a very jolly time in the Lakes. “They are looking exceedingly pretty just now. I have seldom seen the trees so forward at this time of year. We have taken our lunch out several days. Old Alice is as young as ever, and asks after every one affectionately. The days pass very quickly, and term will soon be here. Political prospects not good, I think privately, but do not like to damp Ellen’s enthusiasm. Lloyd George has taken the Bill up, but so have many before now, and we are where we are; but trust to find myself mistaken. Anyhow, we have our work cut out for us. . . . Surely Meredith lacks the human note one likes in W. W.?” she concluded, and went on to discuss some questions of English literature which Miss Allan had raised in her last letter.
At a little distance from Miss Allan, on a seat shaded and made semi–private by a thick clump of palm trees, Arthur and Susan were reading each other’s letters. The big slashing manuscripts of hockey–playing young women in Wiltshire lay on Arthur’s knee, while Susan deciphered tight little legal hands which rarely filled more than a page, and always conveyed the same impression of jocular and breezy goodwill.
“I do hope Mr. Hutchinson will like me, Arthur,” she said, looking up.
“Who’s your loving Flo?” asked Arthur.
“Flo Graves—the girl I told you about, who was engaged to that dreadful Mr. Vincent,” said Susan. “Is Mr. Hutchinson married?” she asked.
Already her mind was busy with benevolent plans for her friends, or rather with one magnificent plan—which was simple too—they were all to get married—at once—directly she got back. Marriage, marriage that was the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by every one she knew, and a great part of her meditations was spent in tracing every instance of discomfort, loneliness, ill–health, unsatisfied ambition, restlessness, eccentricity, taking things up and dropping them again, public speaking, and philanthropic activity on the part of men and particularly on the part of women to the fact that they wanted to marry, were trying to marry, and had not succeeded in getting married. If, as she was bound to own, these symptoms sometimes persisted after marriage, she could only ascribe them to the unhappy law of nature which decreed that there was only one Arthur Venning, and only one Susan who could marry him. Her theory, of course, had the merit of being fully supported by her own case. She had been vaguely uncomfortable at home for two or three years now, and a voyage like this with her selfish old aunt, who paid her fare but treated her as servant and companion in one, was typical of the kind of thing people expected of her. Directly she became engaged, Mrs. Paley behaved with instinctive respect, positively protested when Susan as usual knelt down to lace her shoes, and appeared really grateful for an hour of Susan’s company where she had been used to exact two or three as her right. She therefore foresaw a life of far greater comfort than she had been used to, and the change had already produced a great increase of warmth in her feelings towards other people.
It was close on twenty years now since Mrs. Paley had been able to lace her own shoes or even to see them, the disappearance of her feet having coincided more or less accurately with the death of her husband, a man of business, soon after which event Mrs. Paley began to grow stout. She was a selfish, independent old woman, possessed of a considerable income, which she spent upon the upkeep of a house that needed seven servants and a charwoman in Lancaster Gate, and another with a garden and carriage–horses in Surrey. Susan’s engagement relieved her of the one great anxiety of her life—that her son Christopher should “entangle himself” with his cousin. Now that this familiar source of interest was removed, she felt a little low and inclined to see more in Susan than she used to. She had decided to give her a very handsome wedding present, a cheque for two hundred, two hundred and fifty, or possibly, conceivably—it depended upon the under–gardener and Huths’ bill for doing up the drawing–room—three hundred pounds sterling.
She was thinking of this very question, revolving the figures, as she sat in her wheeled chair with a table spread with cards by her side. The Patience had somehow got into a muddle, and she did not like to call for Susan to help her, as Susan seemed to be busy with Arthur.
“She’s every right to expect a handsome present from me, of course,” she thought, looking vaguely at the leopard on its hind legs, “and I’ve no doubt she does! Money goes a long way with every one. The young are very selfish. If I were to die, nobody would miss me but Dakyns, and she’ll be consoled by the will! However, I’ve got no reason to complain. . . . I can still enjoy myself. I’m not a burden to any–one. . . . I like a great many things a good deal, in spite of my legs.”
Being slightly depressed, however, she went on to think of the only people she had known who had not seemed to her at all selfish or fond of money, who had seemed to her somehow rather finer than the general run; people she willingly acknowledged, who were finer than she was. There were only two of them. One was her brother, who had been drowned before her eyes, the other was a girl, her greatest friend, who had died in giving birth to her first child. These things had happened some fifty years ago.
“They ought not to have died,” she thought. “However, they did—and we selfish old creatures go on.” The tears came to her eyes; she felt a genuine regret for them, a kind of respect for their youth and beauty, and a kind of shame for herself; but the tears did not fall; and she opened one of those innumerable novels which she used to pronounce good or bad, or pretty middling, or really wonderful. “I can’t think how people come to imagine such things,” she would say, taking off her spectacles and looking up with the old faded eyes, that were becoming ringed with white.
Just behind the stuffed leopard Mr. Elliot was playing chess with Mr. Pepper. He was being defeated, naturally, for Mr. Pepper scarcely took his eyes off the board, and Mr. Elliot kept leaning back in his chair and throwing out remarks to a gentleman who had only arrived the night before, a tall handsome man, with a head resembling the head of an intellectual ram. After a few remarks of a general nature had passed, they were discovering that they knew some of the same people, as indeed had been obvious from their appearance directly they saw each other.
“Ah yes, old Truefit,” said Mr. Elliot. “He has a son at Oxford. I’ve often stayed with them. It’s a lovely old Jacobean house. Some exquisite Greuzes—one or two Dutch pictures which the old boy kept in the cellars. Then there were stacks upon stacks of prints. Oh, the dirt in that house! He was a miser, you know. The boy married a daughter of Lord Pinwells. I know them too. The collecting mania tends to run in families. This chap collects buckles—men’s shoe–buckles they must be, in use between the years 1580 and 1660; the dates mayn’t be right, but fact’s as I say. Your true collector always has some unaccountable fad of that kind. On other points he’s as level–headed as a breeder of shorthorns, which is what he happens to be. Then the Pinwells, as you probably know, have their share of eccentricity too. Lady Maud, for instance—” he was interrupted here by the necessity of considering his move,—”Lady Maud has a horror of cats and clergymen, and people with big front teeth. I’ve heard her shout across a table, ‘Keep your mouth shut, Miss Smith; they’re as yellow as carrots!’ across a table, mind you. To me she’s always been civility itself. She dabbles in literature, likes to collect a few of us in her drawing–room, but mention a clergyman, a bishop even, nay, the Archbishop himself, and she gobbles like a turkey–cock. I’ve been told it’s a family feud—something to do with an ancestor in the reign of Charles the First. Yes,” he continued, suffering check after check, “I always like to know something of the grandmothers of our fashionable young men. In my opinion they preserve all that we admire in the eighteenth century, with the advantage, in the majority of cases, that they are personally clean. Not that one would insult old Lady Barborough by calling her clean. How often d’you think, Hilda,” he called out to his wife, “her ladyship takes a bath?”
“I should hardly like to say, Hugh,” Mrs. Elliot tittered, “but wearing puce velvet, as she does even on the hottest August day, it somehow doesn’t show.”
“Pepper, you have me,” said Mr. Elliot. “My chess is even worse than I remembered.” He accepted his defeat with great equanimity, because he really wished to talk.
He drew his chair beside Mr. Wilfrid Flushing, the newcomer.
“Are these at all in your line?” he asked, pointing at a case in front of them, where highly polished crosses, jewels, and bits of embroidery, the work of the natives, were displayed to tempt visitors.
“Shams, all of them,” said Mr. Flushing briefly. “This rug, now, isn’t at all bad.” He stopped and picked up a piece of the rug at their feet. “Not old, of course, but the design is quite in the right tradition. Alice, lend me your brooch. See the difference between the old work and the new.”
A lady, who was reading with great concentration, unfastened her brooch and gave it to her husband without looking at him or acknowledging the tentative bow which Mr. Elliot was desirous of giving her. If she had listened, she might have been amused by the reference to old Lady Barborough, her great–aunt, but, oblivious of her surroundings, she went on reading.
The clock, which had been wheezing for some minutes like an old man preparing to cough, now struck nine. The sound slightly disturbed certain somnolent merchants, government officials, and men of independent means who were lying back in their chairs, chatting, smoking, ruminating about their affairs, with their eyes half shut; they raised their lids for an instant at the sound and then closed them again. They had the appearance of crocodiles so fully gorged by their last meal that the future of the world gives them no anxiety whatever. The only disturbance in the placid bright room was caused by a large moth which shot from light to light, whizzing over elaborate heads of hair, and causing several young women to raise their hands nervously and exclaim, “Some one ought to kill it!”
Absorbed in their own thoughts, Hewet and Hirst had not spoken for a long time.
When the clock struck, Hirst said:
“Ah, the creatures begin to stir. . . .” He watched them raise themselves, look about them, and settle down again. “What I abhor most of all,” he concluded, “is the female breast. Imagine being Venning and having to get into bed with Susan! But the really repulsive thing is that they feel nothing at all—about what I do when I have a hot bath. They’re gross, they’re absurd, they’re utterly intolerable!”
So saying, and drawing no reply from Hewet, he proceeded to think about himself, about science, about Cambridge, about the Bar, about Helen and what she thought of him, until, being very tired, he was nodding off to sleep.
Suddenly Hewet woke him up.
“How d’you know what you feel, Hirst?”
“Are you in love?” asked Hirst. He put in his eyeglass.
“Don’t be a fool,” said Hewet.
“Well, I’ll sit down and think about it,” said Hirst. “One really ought to. If these people would only think about things, the world would be a far better place for us all to live in. Are you trying to think?”
That was exactly what Hewet had been doing for the last half–hour, but he did not find Hirst sympathetic at the moment.
“I shall go for a walk,” he said.
“Remember we weren’t in bed last night,” said Hirst with a prodigious yawn.
Hewet rose and stretched himself.
“I want to go and get a breath of air,” he said.
An unusual feeling had been bothering him all the evening and forbidding him to settle into any one train of thought. It was precisely as if he had been in the middle of a talk which interested him profoundly when some one came up and interrupted him. He could not finish the talk, and the longer he sat there the more he wanted to finish it. As the talk that had been interrupted was a talk with Rachel, he had to ask himself why he felt this, and why he wanted to go on talking to her. Hirst would merely say that he was in love with her. But he was not in love with her. Did love begin in that way, with the wish to go on talking? No. It always began in his case with definite physical sensations, and these were now absent, he did not even find her physically attractive. There was something, of course, unusual about her—she was young, inexperienced, and inquisitive, they had been more open with each other than was usually possible. He always found girls interesting to talk to, and surely these were good reasons why he should wish to go on talking to her; and last night, what with the crowd and the confusion, he had only been able to begin to talk to her. What was she doing now? Lying on a sofa and looking at the ceiling, perhaps. He could imagine her doing that, and Helen in an arm–chair, with her hands on the arm of it, so—looking ahead of her, with her great big eyes—oh no, they’d be talking, of course, about the dance. But suppose Rachel was going away in a day or two, suppose this was the end of her visit, and her father had arrived in one of the steamers anchored in the bay,—it was intolerable to know so little. Therefore he exclaimed, “How d’you know what you feel, Hirst?” to stop himself from thinking.
But Hirst did not help him, and the other people with their aimless movements and their unknown lives were disturbing, so that he longed for the empty darkness. The first thing he looked for when he stepped out of the hall door was the light of the Ambroses’ villa. When he had definitely decided that a certain light apart from the others higher up the hill was their light, he was considerably reassured. There seemed to be at once a little stability in all this incoherence. Without any definite plan in his head, he took the turning to the right and walked through the town and came to the wall by the meeting of the roads, where he stopped. The booming of the sea was audible. The dark–blue mass of the mountains rose against the paler blue of the sky. There was no moon, but myriads of stars, and lights were anchored up and down in the dark waves of earth all round him. He had meant to go back, but the single light of the Ambroses’ villa had now become three separate lights, and he was tempted to go on. He might as well make sure that Rachel was still there. Walking fast, he soon stood by the iron gate of their garden, and pushed it open; the outline of the house suddenly appeared sharply before his eyes, and the thin column of the verandah cutting across the palely lit gravel of the terrace. He hesitated. At the back of the house some one was rattling cans. He approached the front; the light on the terrace showed him that the sitting–rooms were on that side. He stood as near the light as he could by the corner of the house, the leaves of a creeper brushing his face. After a moment he could hear a voice. The voice went on steadily; it was not talking, but from the continuity of the sound it was a voice reading aloud. He crept a little closer; he crumpled the leaves together so as to stop their rustling about his ears. It might be Rachel’s voice. He left the shadow and stepped into the radius of the light, and then heard a sentence spoken quite distinctly.
“And there we lived from the year 1860 to 1895, the happiest years of my parents’ lives, and there in 1862 my brother Maurice was born, to the delight of his parents, as he was destined to be the delight of all who knew him.”
The voice quickened, and the tone became conclusive rising slightly in pitch, as if these words were at the end of the chapter. Hewet drew back again into the shadow. There was a long silence. He could just hear chairs being moved inside. He had almost decided to go back, when suddenly two figures appeared at the window, not six feet from him.
“It was Maurice Fielding, of course, that your mother was engaged to,” said Helen’s voice. She spoke reflectively, looking out into the dark garden, and thinking evidently as much of the look of the night as of what she was saying.
“Mother?” said Rachel. Hewet’s heart leapt, and he noticed the fact. Her voice, though low, was full of surprise.
“You didn’t know that?” said Helen.
“I never knew there’d been any one else,” said Rachel. She was clearly surprised, but all they said was said low and inexpressively, because they were speaking out into the cool dark night.
“More people were in love with her than with any one I’ve ever known,” Helen stated. She had that power—she enjoyed things. She wasn’t beautiful, but—I was thinking of her last night at the dance. She got on with every kind of person, and then she made it all so amazingly—funny.”
It appeared that Helen was going back into the past, choosing her words deliberately, comparing Theresa with the people she had known since Theresa died.
“I don’t know how she did it,” she continued, and ceased, and there was a long pause, in which a little owl called first here, then there, as it moved from tree to tree in the garden.
“That’s so like Aunt Lucy and Aunt Katie,” said Rachel at last. “They always make out that she was very sad and very good.”
“Then why, for goodness’ sake, did they do nothing but criticize her when she was alive?” said Helen. Very gentle their voices sounded, as if they fell through the waves of the sea.
“If I were to die to–morrow . . .” she began.
The broken sentences had an extraordinary beauty and detachment in Hewet’s ears, and a kind of mystery too, as though they were spoken by people in their sleep.
“No, Rachel,” Helen’s voice continued, “I’m not going to walk in the garden; it’s damp—it’s sure to be damp; besides, I see at least a dozen toads.”
“Toads? Those are stones, Helen. Come out. It’s nicer out. The flowers smell,” Rachel replied.
Hewet drew still farther back. His heart was beating very quickly. Apparently Rachel tried to pull Helen out on to the terrace, and helen resisted. There was a certain amount of scuffling, entreating, resisting, and laughter from both of them. Then a man’s form appeared. Hewet could not hear what they were all saying. In a minute they had gone in; he could hear bolts grating then; there was dead silence, and all the lights went out.
He turned away, still crumpling and uncrumpling a handful of leaves which he had torn from the wall. An exquisite sense of pleasure and relief possessed him; it was all so solid and peaceful after the ball at the hotel, whether he was in love with them or not, and he was not in love with them; no, but it was good that they should be alive.
After standing still for a minute or two he turned and began to walk towards the gate. With the movement of his body, the excitement, the romance and the richness of life crowded into his brain. He shouted out a line of poetry, but the words escaped him, and he stumbled among lines and fragments of lines which had no meaning at all except for the beauty of the words. He shut the gate, and ran swinging from side to side down the hill, shouting any nonsense that came into his head. “Here am I,” he cried rhythmically, as his feet pounded to the left and to the right, “plunging along, like an elephant in the jungle, stripping the branches as I go (he snatched at the twigs of a bush at the roadside), roaring innumerable words, lovely words about innumerable things, running downhill and talking nonsense aloud to myself about roads and leaves and lights and women coming out into the darkness—about women—about Rachel, about Rachel.” He stopped and drew a deep breath. The night seemed immense and hospitable, and although so dark there seemed to be things moving down there in the harbour and movement out at sea. He gazed until the darkness numbed him, and then he walked on quickly, still murmuring to himself. “And I ought to be in bed, snoring and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming. Dreams and realities, dreams and realities, dreams and realities,” he repeated all the way up the avenue, scarcely knowing what he said, until he reached the front door. Here he paused for a second, and collected himself before he opened the door.
His eyes were dazed, his hands very cold, and his brain excited and yet half asleep. Inside the door everything was as he had left it except that the hall was now empty. There were the chairs turning in towards each other where people had sat talking, and the empty glasses on little tables, and the newspapers scattered on the floor. As he shut the door he felt as if he were enclosed in a square box, and instantly shrivelled up. It was all very bright and very small. He stopped for a minute by the long table to find a paper which he had meant to read, but he was still too much under the influence of the dark and the fresh air to consider carefully which paper it was or where he had seen it.
As he fumbled vaguely among the papers he saw a figure cross the tail of his eye, coming downstairs. He heard the swishing sound of skirts, and to his great surprise, Evelyn M. came up to him, laid her hand on the table as if to prevent him from taking up a paper, and said:
“You’re just the person I wanted to talk to.” Her voice was a little unpleasant and metallic, her eyes were very bright, and she kept them fixed upon him.
“To talk to me?” he repeated. “But I’m half asleep.”
“But I think you understand better than most people,” she answered, and sat down on a little chair placed beside a big leather chair so that Hewet had to sit down beside her.
“Well?” he said. He yawned openly, and lit a cigarette. He could not believe that this was really happening to him. “What is it?”
“Are you really sympathetic, or is it just a pose?” she demanded.
“It’s for you to say,” he replied. “I’m interested, I think.” He still felt numb all over and as if she was much too close to him.
“Any one can be interested!” she cried impatiently. “Your friend Mr. Hirst’s interested, I daresay. however, I do believe in you. You look as if you’d got a nice sister, somehow.” She paused, picking at some sequins on her knees, and then, as if she had made up her mind, she started off, “Anyhow, I’m going to ask your advice. D’you ever get into a state where you don’t know your own mind? That’s the state I’m in now. You see, last night at the dance Raymond Oliver,—he’s the tall dark boy who looks as if he had Indian blood in him, but he says he’s not really,—well, we were sitting out together, and he told me all about himself, how unhappy he is at home, and how he hates being out here. They’ve put him into some beastly mining business. He says it’s beastly—I should like it, I know, but that’s neither here nor there. And I felt awfully sorry for him, one couldn’t help being sorry for him, and when he asked me to let him kiss me, I did. I don’t see any harm in that, do you? And then this morning he said he’d thought I meant something more, and I wasn’t the sort to let any one kiss me. And we talked and talked. I daresay I was very silly, but one can’t help liking people when one’s sorry for them. I do like him most awfully—” She paused. “So I gave him half a promise, and then, you see, there’s Alfred Perrott.”
“Oh, Perrott,” said Hewet.
“We got to know each other on that picnic the other day,” she continued. “He seemed so lonely, especially as Arthur had gone off with Susan, and one couldn’t help guessing what was in his mind. So we had quite a long talk when you were looking at the ruins, and he told me all about his life, and his struggles, and how fearfully hard it had been. D’you know, he was a boy in a grocer’s shop and took parcels to people’s houses in a basket? That interested me awfully, because I always say it doesn’t matter how you’re born if you’ve got the right stuff in you. And he told me about his sister who’s paralysed, poor girl, and one can see she’s a great trial, though he’s evidently very devoted to her. I must say I do admire people like that! I don’t expect you do because you’re so clever. Well, last night we sat out in the garden together, and I couldn’t help seeing what he wanted to say, and comforting him a little, and telling him I did care—I really do—only, then, there’s Raymond Oliver. What I want you to tell me is, can one be in love with two people at once, or can’t one?”
She became silent, and sat with her chin on her hands, looking very intent, as if she were facing a real problem which had to be discussed between them.
“I think it depends what sort of person you are,” said Hewet. He looked at her. She was small and pretty, aged perhaps twenty–eight or twenty–nine, but though dashing and sharply cut, her features expressed nothing very clearly, except a great deal of spirit and good health.
“Who are you, what are you; you see, I know nothing about you,” he continued.
“Well, I was coming to that,” said Evelyn M. She continued to rest her chin on her hands and to look intently ahead of her. “I’m the daughter of a mother and no father, if that interests you,” she said. “It’s not a very nice thing to be. It’s what often happens in the country. She was a farmer’s daughter, and he was rather a swell—the young man up at the great house. He never made things straight—never married her—though he allowed us quite a lot of money. His people wouldn’t let him. Poor father! I can’t help liking him. Mother wasn’t the sort of woman who could keep him straight, anyhow. He was killed in the war. I believe his men worshipped him. They say great big troopers broke down and cried over his body on the battlefield. I wish I’d known him. Mother had all the life crushed out of her. The world—” She clenched her fist. “Oh, people can be horrid to a woman like that!” She turned upon Hewet.
“Well,” she said, “d’you want to know any more about me?”
“But you?” he asked, “Who looked after you?”
“I’ve looked after myself mostly,” she laughed. “I’ve had splendid friends. I do like people! That’s the trouble. What would you do if you liked two people, both of them tremendously, and you couldn’t tell which most?”
“I should go on liking them—I should wait and see. Why not?”
“But one has to make up one’s mind,” said Evelyn. “Or are you one of the people who doesn’t believe in marriages and all that? Look here—this isn’t fair, I do all the telling, and you tell nothing. Perhaps you’re the same as your friend”—she looked at him suspiciously; “perhaps you don’t like me?”
“I don’t know you,” said Hewet.
“I know when I like a person directly I see them! I knew I liked you the very first night at dinner. Oh dear,” she continued impatiently, “what a lot of bother would be saved if only people would say the things they think straight out! I’m made like that. I can’t help it.”
“But don’t you find it leads to difficulties?” Hewet asked.
“That’s men’s fault,” she answered. “They always drag it in–love, I mean.”
“And so you’ve gone on having one proposal after another,” said Hewet.
“I don’t suppose I’ve had more proposals than most women,” said Evelyn, but she spoke without conviction.
“Five, six, ten?” Hewet ventured.
Evelyn seemed to intimate that perhaps ten was the right figure, but that it really was not a high one.
“I believe you’re thinking me a heartless flirt,” she protested. “But I don’t care if you are. I don’t care what any one thinks of me. Just because one’s interested and likes to be friends with men, and talk to them as one talks to women, one’s called a flirt.”
“But Miss Murgatroyd—”
“I wish you’d call me Evelyn,” she interrupted.
“After ten proposals do you honestly think that men are the same as women?”
“Honestly, honestly,—how I hate that word! It’s always used by prigs,” cried Evelyn. “Honestly I think they ought to be. That’s what’s so disappointing. Every time one thinks it’s not going to happen, and every time it does.”
“The pursuit of Friendship,” said Hewet. “The title of a comedy.”
“You’re horrid,” she cried. “You don’t care a bit really. You might be Mr. Hirst.”
“Well,” said Hewet, “let’s consider. Let us consider—” He paused, because for the moment he could not remember what it was that they had to consider. He was far more interested in her than in her story, for as she went on speaking his numbness had disappeared, and he was conscious of a mixture of liking, pity, and distrust. “You’ve promised to marry both Oliver and Perrott?” he concluded.
“Not exactly promised,” said Evelyn. “I can’t make up my mind which I really like best. Oh how I detest modern life!” she flung off. “It must have been so much easier for the Elizabethans! I thought the other day on that mountain how I’d have liked to be one of those colonists, to cut down trees and make laws and all that, instead of fooling about with all these people who think one’s just a pretty young lady. Though I’m not. I really might do something.” She reflected in silence for a minute. Then she said:
“I’m afraid right down in my heart that Alfred Perrot won’t do. He’s not strong, is he?”
“Perhaps he couldn’t cut down a tree,” said Hewet. “Have you never cared for anybody?” he asked.
“I’ve cared for heaps of people, but not to marry them,” she said. “I suppose I’m too fastidious. All my life I’ve wanted somebody I could look up to, somebody great and big and splendid. Most men are so small.”
“What d’you mean by splendid?” Hewet asked. “People are—nothing more.”
Evelyn was puzzled.
“We don’t care for people because of their qualities,” he tried to explain. “It’s just them that we care for,”—he struck a match—”just that,” he said, pointing to the flames.
“I see what you mean,” she said, “but I don’t agree. I do know why I care for people, and I think I’m hardly ever wrong. I see at once what they’ve got in them. Now I think you must be rather splendid; but not Mr. Hirst.”
Hewlet shook his head.
“He’s not nearly so unselfish, or so sympathetic, or so big, or so understanding,” Evelyn continued.
Hewet sat silent, smoking his cigarette.
“I should hate cutting down trees,” he remarked.
“I’m not trying to flirt with you, though I suppose you think I am!” Evelyn shot out. “I’d never have come to you if I’d thought you’d merely think odious things of me!” The tears came into her eyes.
“Do you never flirt?” he asked.
“Of course I don’t,” she protested. “Haven’t I told you? I want friendship; I want to care for some one greater and nobler than I am, and if they fall in love with me it isn’t my fault; I don’t want it; I positively hate it.”
Hewet could see that there was very little use in going on with the conversation, for it was obvious that Evelyn did not wish to say anything in particular, but to impress upon him an image of herself, being, for some reason which she would not reveal, unhappy, or insecure. He was very tired, and a pale waiter kept walking ostentatiously into the middle of the room and looking at them meaningly.
“They want to shut up,” he said. “My advice is that you should tell Oliver and Perrott to–morrow that you’ve made up your mind that you don’t mean to marry either of them. I’m certain you don’t. If you change your mind you can always tell them so. They’re both sensible men; they’ll understand. And then all this bother will be over.” He got up.
But Evelyn did not move. She sat looking up at him with her bright eager eyes, in the depths of which he thought he detected some disappointment, or dissatisfaction.
“Good–night,” he said.
“There are heaps of things I want to say to you still,” she said. “And I’m going to, some time. I suppose you must go to bed now?”
“Yes,” said Hewet. “I’m half asleep.” He left her still sitting by herself in the empty hall.
“Why is it that they won’t be honest?” he muttered to himself as he went upstairs. Why was it that relations between different people were so unsatisfactory, so fragmentary, so hazardous, and words so dangerous that the instinct to sympathise with another human being was an instinct to be examined carefully and probably crushed? What had Evelyn really wished to say to him? What was she feeling left alone in the empty hall? The mystery of life and the unreality even of one’s own sensations overcame him as he walked down the corridor which led to his room. It was dimly lighted, but sufficiently for him to see a figure in a bright dressing–gown pass swiftly in front of him, the figure of a woman crossing from one room to another.