Of all the hours of an ordinary working week-day, which are the pleasantest to look forward to and to look back upon? If a single instance is of use in framing a theory, it may be said that the minutes between nine-twenty-five and nine-thirty in the morning had a singular charm for Mary Datchet. She spent them in a very enviable frame of mind; her contentment was almost unalloyed. High in the air as her flat was, some beams from the morning sun reached her even in November, striking straight at curtain, chair, and carpet, and painting there three bright, true spaces of green, blue, and purple, upon which the eye rested with a pleasure which gave physical warmth to the body.
There were few mornings when Mary did not look up, as she bent to lace her boots, and as she followed the yellow rod from curtain to breakfast-table she usually breathed some sigh of thankfulness that her life provided her with such moments of pure enjoyment. She was robbing no one of anything, and yet, to get so much pleasure from simple things, such as eating one’s breakfast alone in a room which had nice colors in it, clean from the skirting of the boards to the corners of the ceiling, seemed to suit her so thoroughly that she used at first to hunt about for some one to apologize to, or for some flaw in the situation. She had now been six months in London, and she could find no flaw, but that, as she invariably concluded by the time her boots were laced, was solely and entirely due to the fact that she had her work. Every day, as she stood with her dispatch-box in her hand at the door of her flat, and gave one look back into the room to see that everything was straight before she left, she said to herself that she was very glad that she was going to leave it all, that to have sat there all day long, in the enjoyment of leisure, would have been intolerable.
Out in the street she liked to think herself one of the workers who, at this hour, take their way in rapid single file along all the broad pavements of the city, with their heads slightly lowered, as if all their effort were to follow each other as closely as might be; so that Mary used to figure to herself a straight rabbit-run worn by their unswerving feet upon the pavement. But she liked to pretend that she was indistinguishable from the rest, and that when a wet day drove her to the Underground or omnibus, she gave and took her share of crowd and wet with clerks and typists and commercial men, and shared with them the serious business of winding-up the world to tick for another four-and-twenty hours.
Thus thinking, on the particular morning in question, she made her away across Lincoln’s Inn Fields and up Kingsway, and so through Southampton Row until she reached her office in Russell Square. Now and then she would pause and look into the window of some bookseller or flower shop, where, at this early hour, the goods were being arranged, and empty gaps behind the plate glass revealed a state of undress. Mary felt kindly disposed towards the shopkeepers, and hoped that they would trick the midday public into purchasing, for at this hour of the morning she ranged herself entirely on the side of the shopkeepers and bank clerks, and regarded all who slept late and had money to spend as her enemy and natural prey. And directly she had crossed the road at Holborn, her thoughts all came naturally and regularly to roost upon her work, and she forgot that she was, properly speaking, an amateur worker, whose services were unpaid, and could hardly be said to wind the world up for its daily task, since the world, so far, had shown very little desire to take the boons which Mary’s society for woman’s suffrage had offered it.
She was thinking all the way up Southampton Row of notepaper and foolscap, and how an economy in the use of paper might be effected (without, of course, hurting Mrs. Seal’s feelings), for she was certain that the great organizers always pounce, to begin with, upon trifles like these, and build up their triumphant reforms upon a basis of absolute solidity; and, without acknowledging it for a moment, Mary Datchet was determined to be a great organizer, and had already doomed her society to reconstruction of the most radical kind. Once or twice lately, it is true, she had started, broad awake, before turning into Russell Square, and denounced herself rather sharply for being already in a groove, capable, that is, of thinking the same thoughts every morning at the same hour, so that the chestnut-colored brick of the Russell Square houses had some curious connection with her thoughts about office economy, and served also as a sign that she should get into trim for meeting Mr. Clacton, or Mrs. Seal, or whoever might be beforehand with her at the office. Having no religious belief, she was the more conscientious about her life, examining her position from time to time very seriously, and nothing annoyed her more than to find one of these bad habits nibbling away unheeded at the precious substance. What was the good, after all, of being a woman if one didn’t keep fresh, and cram one’s life with all sorts of views and experiments? Thus she always gave herself a little shake, as she turned the corner, and, as often as not, reached her own door whistling a snatch of a Somersetshire ballad.
The suffrage office was at the top of one of the large Russell Square houses, which had once been lived in by a great city merchant and his family, and was now let out in slices to a number of societies which displayed assorted initials upon doors of ground glass, and kept, each of them, a typewriter which clicked busily all day long. The old house, with its great stone staircase, echoed hollowly to the sound of typewriters and of errand-boys from ten to six. The noise of different typewriters already at work, disseminating their views upon the protection of native races, or the value of cereals as foodstuffs, quickened Mary’s steps, and she always ran up the last flight of steps which led to her own landing, at whatever hour she came, so as to get her typewriter to take its place in competition with the rest.
She sat herself down to her letters, and very soon all these speculations were forgotten, and the two lines drew themselves between her eyebrows, as the contents of the letters, the office furniture, and the sounds of activity in the next room gradually asserted their sway upon her. By eleven o’clock the atmosphere of concentration was running so strongly in one direction that any thought of a different order could hardly have survived its birth more than a moment or so. The task which lay before her was to organize a series of entertainments, the profits of which were to benefit the society, which drooped for want of funds. It was her first attempt at organization on a large scale, and she meant to achieve something remarkable. She meant to use the cumbrous machine to pick out this, that, and the other interesting person from the muddle of the world, and to set them for a week in a pattern which must catch the eyes of Cabinet Ministers, and the eyes once caught, the old arguments were to be delivered with unexampled originality. Such was the scheme as a whole; and in contemplation of it she would become quite flushed and excited, and have to remind herself of all the details that intervened between her and success.
The door would open, and Mr. Clacton would come in to search for a certain leaflet buried beneath a pyramid of leaflets. He was a thin, sandy-haired man of about thirty-five, spoke with a Cockney accent, and had about him a frugal look, as if nature had not dealt generously with him in any way, which, naturally, prevented him from dealing generously with other people. When he had found his leaflet, and offered a few jocular hints upon keeping papers in order, the typewriting would stop abruptly, and Mrs. Seal would burst into the room with a letter which needed explanation in her hand. This was a more serious interruption than the other, because she never knew exactly what she wanted, and half a dozen requests would bolt from her, no one of which was clearly stated. Dressed in plum-colored velveteen, with short, gray hair, and a face that seemed permanently flushed with philanthropic enthusiasm, she was always in a hurry, and always in some disorder. She wore two crucifixes, which got themselves entangled in a heavy gold chain upon her breast, and seemed to Mary expressive of her mental ambiguity. Only her vast enthusiasm and her worship of Miss Markham, one of the pioneers of the society, kept her in her place, for which she had no sound qualification.
So the morning wore on, and the pile of letters grew, and Mary felt, at last, that she was the center ganglion of a very fine network of nerves which fell over England, and one of these days, when she touched the heart of the system, would begin feeling and rushing together and emitting their splendid blaze of revolutionary fireworks—for some such metaphor represents what she felt about her work, when her brain had been heated by three hours of application.
Shortly before one o’clock Mr. Clacton and Mrs. Seal desisted from their labors, and the old joke about luncheon, which came out regularly at this hour, was repeated with scarcely any variation of words. Mr. Clacton patronized a vegetarian restaurant; Mrs. Seal brought sandwiches, which she ate beneath the plane-trees in Russell Square; while Mary generally went to a gaudy establishment, upholstered in red plush, near by, where, much to the vegetarian’s disapproval, you could buy steak, two inches thick, or a roast section of fowl, swimming in a pewter dish.
“The bare branches against the sky do one so much GOOD,” Mrs. Seal asserted, looking out into the Square.
“But one can’t lunch off trees, Sally,” said Mary.
“I confess I don’t know how you manage it, Miss Datchet,” Mr. Clacton remarked. “I should sleep all the afternoon, I know, if I took a heavy meal in the middle of the day.”
“What’s the very latest thing in literature?” Mary asked, good-humoredly pointing to the yellow-covered volume beneath Mr. Clacton’s arm, for he invariably read some new French author at lunch-time, or squeezed in a visit to a picture gallery, balancing his social work with an ardent culture of which he was secretly proud, as Mary had very soon divined.
So they parted and Mary walked away, wondering if they guessed that she really wanted to get away from them, and supposing that they had not quite reached that degree of subtlety. She bought herself an evening paper, which she read as she ate, looking over the top of it again and again at the queer people who were buying cakes or imparting their secrets, until some young woman whom she knew came in, and she called out, “Eleanor, come and sit by me,” and they finished their lunch together, parting on the strip of pavement among the different lines of traffic with a pleasant feeling that they were stepping once more into their separate places in the great and eternally moving pattern of human life.
But, instead of going straight back to the office to-day, Mary turned into the British Museum, and strolled down the gallery with the shapes of stone until she found an empty seat directly beneath the gaze of the Elgin marbles. She looked at them, and seemed, as usual, borne up on some wave of exaltation and emotion, by which her life at once became solemn and beautiful—an impression which was due as much, perhaps, to the solitude and chill and silence of the gallery as to the actual beauty of the statues. One must suppose, at least, that her emotions were not purely esthetic, because, after she had gazed at the Ulysses for a minute or two, she began to think about Ralph Denham. So secure did she feel with these silent shapes that she almost yielded to an impulse to say “I am in love with you” aloud. The presence of this immense and enduring beauty made her almost alarmingly conscious of her desire, and at the same time proud of a feeling which did not display anything like the same proportions when she was going about her daily work.
She repressed her impulse to speak aloud, and rose and wandered about rather aimlessly among the statues until she found herself in another gallery devoted to engraved obelisks and winged Assyrian bulls, and her emotion took another turn. She began to picture herself traveling with Ralph in a land where these monsters were couchant in the sand. “For,” she thought to herself, as she gazed fixedly at some information printed behind a piece of glass, “the wonderful thing about you is that you’re ready for anything; you’re not in the least conventional, like most clever men.”
And she conjured up a scene of herself on a camel’s back, in the desert, while Ralph commanded a whole tribe of natives.
“That is what you can do,” she went on, moving on to the next statue. “You always make people do what you want.”
A glow spread over her spirit, and filled her eyes with brightness. Nevertheless, before she left the Museum she was very far from saying, even in the privacy of her own mind, “I am in love with you,” and that sentence might very well never have framed itself. She was, indeed, rather annoyed with herself for having allowed such an ill-considered breach of her reserve, weakening her powers of resistance, she felt, should this impulse return again. For, as she walked along the street to her office, the force of all her customary objections to being in love with any one overcame her. She did not want to marry at all. It seemed to her that there was something amateurish in bringing love into touch with a perfectly straightforward friendship, such as hers was with Ralph, which, for two years now, had based itself upon common interests in impersonal topics, such as the housing of the poor, or the taxation of land values.
But the afternoon spirit differed intrinsically from the morning spirit. Mary found herself watching the flight of a bird, or making drawings of the branches of the plane-trees upon her blotting-paper. People came in to see Mr. Clacton on business, and a seductive smell of cigarette smoke issued from his room. Mrs. Seal wandered about with newspaper cuttings, which seemed to her either “quite splendid” or “really too bad for words.” She used to paste these into books, or send them to her friends, having first drawn a broad bar in blue pencil down the margin, a proceeding which signified equally and indistinguishably the depths of her reprobation or the heights of her approval.
About four o’clock on that same afternoon Katharine Hilbery was walking up Kingsway. The question of tea presented itself. The street lamps were being lit already, and as she stood still for a moment beneath one of them, she tried to think of some neighboring drawing-room where there would be firelight and talk congenial to her mood. That mood, owing to the spinning traffic and the evening veil of unreality, was ill-adapted to her home surroundings. Perhaps, on the whole, a shop was the best place in which to preserve this queer sense of heightened existence. At the same time she wished to talk. Remembering Mary Datchet and her repeated invitations, she crossed the road, turned into Russell Square, and peered about, seeking for numbers with a sense of adventure that was out of all proportion to the deed itself. She found herself in a dimly lighted hall, unguarded by a porter, and pushed open the first swing door. But the office-boy had never heard of Miss Datchet. Did she belong to the S.R.F.R.? Katharine shook her head with a smile of dismay. A voice from within shouted, “No. The S.G.S.—top floor.”
Katharine mounted past innumerable glass doors, with initials on them, and became steadily more and more doubtful of the wisdom of her venture. At the top she paused for a moment to breathe and collect herself. She heard the typewriter and formal professional voices inside, not belonging, she thought, to any one she had ever spoken to. She touched the bell, and the door was opened almost immediately by Mary herself. Her face had to change its expression entirely when she saw Katharine.
“You!” she exclaimed. “We thought you were the printer.” Still holding the door open, she called back, “No, Mr. Clacton, it’s not Penningtons. I should ring them up again—double three double eight, Central. Well, this is a surprise. Come in,” she added. “You’re just in time for tea.”
The light of relief shone in Mary’s eyes. The boredom of the afternoon was dissipated at once, and she was glad that Katharine had found them in a momentary press of activity, owing to the failure of the printer to send back certain proofs.
The unshaded electric light shining upon the table covered with papers dazed Katharine for a moment. After the confusion of her twilight walk, and her random thoughts, life in this small room appeared extremely concentrated and bright. She turned instinctively to look out of the window, which was uncurtained, but Mary immediately recalled her.
“It was very clever of you to find your way,” she said, and Katharine wondered, as she stood there, feeling, for the moment, entirely detached and unabsorbed, why she had come. She looked, indeed, to Mary’s eyes strangely out of place in the office. Her figure in the long cloak, which took deep folds, and her face, which was composed into a mask of sensitive apprehension, disturbed Mary for a moment with a sense of the presence of some one who was of another world, and, therefore, subversive of her world. She became immediately anxious that Katharine should be impressed by the importance of her world, and hoped that neither Mrs. Seal nor Mr. Clacton would appear until the impression of importance had been received. But in this she was disappointed. Mrs. Seal burst into the room holding a kettle in her hand, which she set upon the stove, and then, with inefficient haste, she set light to the gas, which flared up, exploded, and went out.
“Always the way, always the way,” she muttered. “Kit Markham is the only person who knows how to deal with the thing.”
Mary had to go to her help, and together they spread the table, and apologized for the disparity between the cups and the plainness of the food.
“If we had known Miss Hilbery was coming, we should have bought a cake,” said Mary, upon which Mrs. Seal looked at Katharine for the first time, suspiciously, because she was a person who needed cake.
Here Mr. Clacton opened the door, and came in, holding a typewritten letter in his hand, which he was reading aloud.
“Salford’s affiliated,” he said.
“Well done, Salford!” Mrs. Seal exclaimed enthusiastically, thumping the teapot which she held upon the table, in token of applause.
“Yes, these provincial centers seem to be coming into line at last,” said Mr. Clacton, and then Mary introduced him to Miss Hilbery, and he asked her, in a very formal manner, if she were interested “in our work.”
“And the proofs still not come?” said Mrs. Seal, putting both her elbows on the table, and propping her chin on her hands, as Mary began to pour out tea. “It’s too bad—too bad. At this rate we shall miss the country post. Which reminds me, Mr. Clacton, don’t you think we should circularize the provinces with Partridge’s last speech? What? You’ve not read it? Oh, it’s the best thing they’ve had in the House this Session. Even the Prime Minister—”
But Mary cut her short.
“We don’t allow shop at tea, Sally,” she said firmly. “We fine her a penny each time she forgets, and the fines go to buying a plum cake,” she explained, seeking to draw Katharine into the community. She had given up all hope of impressing her.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Seal apologized. “It’s my misfortune to be an enthusiast,” she said, turning to Katharine. “My father’s daughter could hardly be anything else. I think I’ve been on as many committees as most people. Waifs and Strays, Rescue Work, Church Work, C. O. S.—local branch—besides the usual civic duties which fall to one as a householder. But I’ve given them all up for our work here, and I don’t regret it for a second,” she added. “This is the root question, I feel; until women have votes—”
“It’ll be sixpence, at least, Sally,” said Mary, bringing her fist down on the table. “And we’re all sick to death of women and their votes.”
Mrs. Seal looked for a moment as though she could hardly believe her ears, and made a deprecating “tut-tut-tut” in her throat, looking alternately at Katharine and Mary, and shaking her head as she did so. Then she remarked, rather confidentially to Katharine, with a little nod in Mary’s direction:
“She’s doing more for the cause than any of us. She’s giving her youth—for, alas! when I was young there were domestic circumstances—” she sighed, and stopped short.
Mr. Clacton hastily reverted to the joke about luncheon, and explained how Mrs. Seal fed on a bag of biscuits under the trees, whatever the weather might be, rather, Katharine thought, as though Mrs. Seal were a pet dog who had convenient tricks.
“Yes, I took my little bag into the square,” said Mrs. Seal, with the self-conscious guilt of a child owning some fault to its elders. “It was really very sustaining, and the bare boughs against the sky do one so much GOOD. But I shall have to give up going into the square,” she proceeded, wrinkling her forehead. “The injustice of it! Why should I have a beautiful square all to myself, when poor women who need rest have nowhere at all to sit?” She looked fiercely at Katharine, giving her short locks a little shake. “It’s dreadful what a tyrant one still is, in spite of all one’s efforts. One tries to lead a decent life, but one can’t. Of course, directly one thinks of it, one sees that ALL squares should be open to EVERY ONE. Is there any society with that object, Mr. Clacton? If not, there should be, surely.”
“A most excellent object,” said Mr. Clacton in his professional manner. “At the same time, one must deplore the ramification of organizations, Mrs. Seal. So much excellent effort thrown away, not to speak of pounds, shillings, and pence. Now how many organizations of a philanthropic nature do you suppose there are in the City of London itself, Miss Hilbery?” he added, screwing his mouth into a queer little smile, as if to show that the question had its frivolous side.
Katharine smiled, too. Her unlikeness to the rest of them had, by this time, penetrated to Mr. Clacton, who was not naturally observant, and he was wondering who she was; this same unlikeness had subtly stimulated Mrs. Seal to try and make a convert of her. Mary, too, looked at her almost as if she begged her to make things easy. For Katharine had shown no disposition to make things easy. She had scarcely spoken, and her silence, though grave and even thoughtful, seemed to Mary the silence of one who criticizes.
“Well, there are more in this house than I’d any notion of,” she said. “On the ground floor you protect natives, on the next you emigrate women and tell people to eat nuts—”
“Why do you say that ‘we’ do these things?” Mary interposed, rather sharply. “We’re not responsible for all the cranks who choose to lodge in the same house with us.”
Mr. Clacton cleared his throat and looked at each of the young ladies in turn. He was a good deal struck by the appearance and manner of Miss Hilbery, which seemed to him to place her among those cultivated and luxurious people of whom he used to dream. Mary, on the other hand, was more of his own sort, and a little too much inclined to order him about. He picked up crumbs of dry biscuit and put them into his mouth with incredible rapidity.
“You don’t belong to our society, then?” said Mrs. Seal.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” said Katharine, with such ready candor that Mrs. Seal was nonplussed, and stared at her with a puzzled expression, as if she could not classify her among the varieties of human beings known to her.
“But surely,” she began.
“Mrs. Seal is an enthusiast in these matters,” said Mr. Clacton, almost apologetically. “We have to remind her sometimes that others have a right to their views even if they differ from our own.... “Punch” has a very funny picture this week, about a Suffragist and an agricultural laborer. Have you seen this week’s “Punch,” Miss Datchet?”
Mary laughed, and said “No.”
Mr. Clacton then told them the substance of the joke, which, however, depended a good deal for its success upon the expression which the artist had put into the people’s faces. Mrs. Seal sat all the time perfectly grave. Directly he had done speaking she burst out:
“But surely, if you care about the welfare of your sex at all, you must wish them to have the vote?”
“I never said I didn’t wish them to have the vote,” Katharine protested.
“Then why aren’t you a member of our society?” Mrs. Seal demanded.
Katharine stirred her spoon round and round, stared into the swirl of the tea, and remained silent. Mr. Clacton, meanwhile, framed a question which, after a moment’s hesitation, he put to Katharine.
“Are you in any way related, I wonder, to the poet Alardyce? His daughter, I believe, married a Mr. Hilbery.”
“Yes; I’m the poet’s granddaughter,” said Katharine, with a little sigh, after a pause; and for a moment they were all silent.
“The poet’s granddaughter!” Mrs. Seal repeated, half to herself, with a shake of her head, as if that explained what was otherwise inexplicable.
The light kindled in Mr. Clacton’s eye.
“Ah, indeed. That interests me very much,” he said. “I owe a great debt to your grandfather, Miss Hilbery. At one time I could have repeated the greater part of him by heart. But one gets out of the way of reading poetry, unfortunately. You don’t remember him, I suppose?”
A sharp rap at the door made Katharine’s answer inaudible. Mrs. Seal looked up with renewed hope in her eyes, and exclaiming:
“The proofs at last!” ran to open the door. “Oh, it’s only Mr. Denham!” she cried, without any attempt to conceal her disappointment. Ralph, Katharine supposed, was a frequent visitor, for the only person he thought it necessary to greet was herself, and Mary at once explained the strange fact of her being there by saying:
“Katharine has come to see how one runs an office.”
Ralph felt himself stiffen uncomfortably, as he said:
“I hope Mary hasn’t persuaded you that she knows how to run an office?”
“What, doesn’t she?” said Katharine, looking from one to the other.
At these remarks Mrs. Seal began to exhibit signs of discomposure, which displayed themselves by a tossing movement of her head, and, as Ralph took a letter from his pocket, and placed his finger upon a certain sentence, she forestalled him by exclaiming in confusion:
“Now, I know what you’re going to say, Mr. Denham! But it was the day Kit Markham was here, and she upsets one so—with her wonderful vitality, always thinking of something new that we ought to be doing and aren’t—and I was conscious at the time that my dates were mixed. It had nothing to do with Mary at all, I assure you.”
“My dear Sally, don’t apologize,” said Mary, laughing. “Men are such pedants—they don’t know what things matter, and what things don’t.”
“Now, Denham, speak up for our sex,” said Mr. Clacton in a jocular manner, indeed, but like most insignificant men he was very quick to resent being found fault with by a woman, in argument with whom he was fond of calling himself “a mere man.” He wished, however, to enter into a literary conservation with Miss Hilbery, and thus let the matter drop.
“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, Miss Hilbery,” he said, “that the French, with all their wealth of illustrious names, have no poet who can compare with your grandfather? Let me see. There’s Chenier and Hugo and Alfred de Musset—wonderful men, but, at the same time, there’s a richness, a freshness about Alardyce—”
Here the telephone bell rang, and he had to absent himself with a smile and a bow which signified that, although literature is delightful, it is not work. Mrs. Seal rose at the same time, but remained hovering over the table, delivering herself of a tirade against party government. “For if I were to tell you what I know of back-stairs intrigue, and what can be done by the power of the purse, you wouldn’t credit me, Mr. Denham, you wouldn’t, indeed. Which is why I feel that the only work for my father’s daughter—for he was one of the pioneers, Mr. Denham, and on his tombstone I had that verse from the Psalms put, about the sowers and the seed.... And what wouldn’t I give that he should be alive now, seeing what we’re going to see—” but reflecting that the glories of the future depended in part upon the activity of her typewriter, she bobbed her head, and hurried back to the seclusion of her little room, from which immediately issued sounds of enthusiastic, but obviously erratic, composition.
Mary made it clear at once, by starting a fresh topic of general interest, that though she saw the humor of her colleague, she did not intend to have her laughed at.
“The standard of morality seems to me frightfully low,” she observed reflectively, pouring out a second cup of tea, “especially among women who aren’t well educated. They don’t see that small things matter, and that’s where the leakage begins, and then we find ourselves in difficulties—I very nearly lost my temper yesterday,” she went on, looking at Ralph with a little smile, as though he knew what happened when she lost her temper. “It makes me very angry when people tell me lies—doesn’t it make you angry?” she asked Katharine.
“But considering that every one tells lies,” Katharine remarked, looking about the room to see where she had put down her umbrella and her parcel, for there was an intimacy in the way in which Mary and Ralph addressed each other which made her wish to leave them. Mary, on the other hand, was anxious, superficially at least, that Katharine should stay and so fortify her in her determination not to be in love with Ralph.
Ralph, while lifting his cup from his lips to the table, had made up his mind that if Miss Hilbery left, he would go with her.
“I don’t think that I tell lies, and I don’t think that Ralph tells lies, do you, Ralph?” Mary continued.
Katharine laughed, with more gayety, as it seemed to Mary, than she could properly account for. What was she laughing at? At them, presumably. Katharine had risen, and was glancing hither and thither, at the presses and the cupboards, and all the machinery of the office, as if she included them all in her rather malicious amusement, which caused Mary to keep her eyes on her straightly and rather fiercely, as if she were a gay-plumed, mischievous bird, who might light on the topmost bough and pick off the ruddiest cherry, without any warning. Two women less like each other could scarcely be imagined, Ralph thought, looking from one to the other. Next moment, he too, rose, and nodding to Mary, as Katharine said good-bye, opened the door for her, and followed her out.
Mary sat still and made no attempt to prevent them from going. For a second or two after the door had shut on them her eyes rested on the door with a straightforward fierceness in which, for a moment, a certain degree of bewilderment seemed to enter; but, after a brief hesitation, she put down her cup and proceeded to clear away the tea-things.
The impulse which had driven Ralph to take this action was the result of a very swift little piece of reasoning, and thus, perhaps, was not quite so much of an impulse as it seemed. It passed through his mind that if he missed this chance of talking to Katharine, he would have to face an enraged ghost, when he was alone in his room again, demanding an explanation of his cowardly indecision. It was better, on the whole, to risk present discomfiture than to waste an evening bandying excuses and constructing impossible scenes with this uncompromising section of himself. For ever since he had visited the Hilberys he had been much at the mercy of a phantom Katharine, who came to him when he sat alone, and answered him as he would have her answer, and was always beside him to crown those varying triumphs which were transacted almost every night, in imaginary scenes, as he walked through the lamplit streets home from the office. To walk with Katharine in the flesh would either feed that phantom with fresh food, which, as all who nourish dreams are aware, is a process that becomes necessary from time to time, or refine it to such a degree of thinness that it was scarcely serviceable any longer; and that, too, is sometimes a welcome change to a dreamer. And all the time Ralph was well aware that the bulk of Katharine was not represented in his dreams at all, so that when he met her he was bewildered by the fact that she had nothing to do with his dream of her.
When, on reaching the street, Katharine found that Mr. Denham proceeded to keep pace by her side, she was surprised and, perhaps, a little annoyed. She, too, had her margin of imagination, and to-night her activity in this obscure region of the mind required solitude. If she had had her way, she would have walked very fast down the Tottenham Court Road, and then sprung into a cab and raced swiftly home. The view she had had of the inside of an office was of the nature of a dream to her. Shut off up there, she compared Mrs. Seal, and Mary Datchet, and Mr. Clacton to enchanted people in a bewitched tower, with the spiders’ webs looping across the corners of the room, and all the tools of the necromancer’s craft at hand; for so aloof and unreal and apart from the normal world did they seem to her, in the house of innumerable typewriters, murmuring their incantations and concocting their drugs, and flinging their frail spiders’ webs over the torrent of life which rushed down the streets outside.
She may have been conscious that there was some exaggeration in this fancy of hers, for she certainly did not wish to share it with Ralph. To him, she supposed, Mary Datchet, composing leaflets for Cabinet Ministers among her typewriters, represented all that was interesting and genuine; and, accordingly, she shut them both out from all share in the crowded street, with its pendant necklace of lamps, its lighted windows, and its throng of men and women, which exhilarated her to such an extent that she very nearly forgot her companion. She walked very fast, and the effect of people passing in the opposite direction was to produce a queer dizziness both in her head and in Ralph’s, which set their bodies far apart. But she did her duty by her companion almost unconsciously.
“Mary Datchet does that sort of work very well.... She’s responsible for it, I suppose?”
“Yes. The others don’t help at all.... Has she made a convert of you?”
“Oh no. That is, I’m a convert already.”
“But she hasn’t persuaded you to work for them?”
“Oh dear no—that wouldn’t do at all.”
So they walked on down the Tottenham Court Road, parting and coming together again, and Ralph felt much as though he were addressing the summit of a poplar in a high gale of wind.
“Suppose we get on to that omnibus?” he suggested.
Katharine acquiesced, and they climbed up, and found themselves alone on top of it.
“But which way are you going?” Katharine asked, waking a little from the trance into which movement among moving things had thrown her.
“I’m going to the Temple,” Ralph replied, inventing a destination on the spur of the moment. He felt the change come over her as they sat down and the omnibus began to move forward. He imagined her contemplating the avenue in front of them with those honest sad eyes which seemed to set him at such a distance from them. But the breeze was blowing in their faces; it lifted her hat for a second, and she drew out a pin and stuck it in again,—a little action which seemed, for some reason, to make her rather more fallible. Ah, if only her hat would blow off, and leave her altogether disheveled, accepting it from his hands!
“This is like Venice,” she observed, raising her hand. “The motor-cars, I mean, shooting about so quickly, with their lights.”
“I’ve never seen Venice,” he replied. “I keep that and some other things for my old age.”
“What are the other things?” she asked.
“There’s Venice and India and, I think, Dante, too.”
“Think of providing for one’s old age! And would you refuse to see Venice if you had the chance?”
Instead of answering her, he wondered whether he should tell her something that was quite true about himself; and as he wondered, he told her.
“I’ve planned out my life in sections ever since I was a child, to make it last longer. You see, I’m always afraid that I’m missing something—”
“And so am I!” Katharine exclaimed. “But, after all,” she added, “why should you miss anything?”
“Why? Because I’m poor, for one thing,” Ralph rejoined. “You, I suppose, can have Venice and India and Dante every day of your life.”
She said nothing for a moment, but rested one hand, which was bare of glove, upon the rail in front of her, meditating upon a variety of things, of which one was that this strange young man pronounced Dante as she was used to hearing it pronounced, and another, that he had, most unexpectedly, a feeling about life that was familiar to her. Perhaps, then, he was the sort of person she might take an interest in, if she came to know him better, and as she had placed him among those whom she would never want to know better, this was enough to make her silent. She hastily recalled her first view of him, in the little room where the relics were kept, and ran a bar through half her impressions, as one cancels a badly written sentence, having found the right one.
“But to know that one might have things doesn’t alter the fact that one hasn’t got them,” she said, in some confusion. “How could I go to India, for example? Besides,” she began impulsively, and stopped herself. Here the conductor came round, and interrupted them. Ralph waited for her to resume her sentence, but she said no more.
“I have a message to give your father,” he remarked. “Perhaps you would give it him, or I could come—”
“Yes, do come,” Katharine replied.
“Still, I don’t see why you shouldn’t go to India,” Ralph began, in order to keep her from rising, as she threatened to do.
But she got up in spite of him, and said good-bye with her usual air of decision, and left him with a quickness which Ralph connected now with all her movements. He looked down and saw her standing on the pavement edge, an alert, commanding figure, which waited its season to cross, and then walked boldly and swiftly to the other side. That gesture and action would be added to the picture he had of her, but at present the real woman completely routed the phantom one.