“It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process,” said Katharine, as she passed under the archway, and so into the wide space of King’s Bench Walk, “not the discovery itself at all.” She spoke the last words looking up at Rodney’s windows, which were a semilucent red color, in her honor, as she knew. He had asked her to tea with him. But she was in a mood when it is almost physically disagreeable to interrupt the stride of one’s thought, and she walked up and down two or three times under the trees before approaching his staircase. She liked getting hold of some book which neither her father or mother had read, and keeping it to herself, and gnawing its contents in privacy, and pondering the meaning without sharing her thoughts with any one, or having to decide whether the book was a good one or a bad one. This evening she had twisted the words of Dostoevsky to suit her mood—a fatalistic mood—to proclaim that the process of discovery was life, and that, presumably, the nature of one’s goal mattered not at all. She sat down for a moment upon one of the seats; felt herself carried along in the swirl of many things; decided, in her sudden way, that it was time to heave all this thinking overboard, and rose, leaving a fishmonger’s basket on the seat behind her. Two minutes later her rap sounded with authority upon Rodney’s door.
“Well, William,” she said, “I’m afraid I’m late.”
It was true, but he was so glad to see her that he forgot his annoyance. He had been occupied for over an hour in making things ready for her, and he now had his reward in seeing her look right and left, as she slipped her cloak from her shoulders, with evident satisfaction, although she said nothing. He had seen that the fire burnt well; jam-pots were on the table, tin covers shone in the fender, and the shabby comfort of the room was extreme. He was dressed in his old crimson dressing-gown, which was faded irregularly, and had bright new patches on it, like the paler grass which one finds on lifting a stone. He made the tea, and Katharine drew off her gloves, and crossed her legs with a gesture that was rather masculine in its ease. Nor did they talk much until they were smoking cigarettes over the fire, having placed their teacups upon the floor between them.
They had not met since they had exchanged letters about their relationship. Katharine’s answer to his protestation had been short and sensible. Half a sheet of notepaper contained the whole of it, for she merely had to say that she was not in love with him, and so could not marry him, but their friendship would continue, she hoped, unchanged. She had added a postscript in which she stated, “I like your sonnet very much.”
So far as William was concerned, this appearance of ease was assumed. Three times that afternoon he had dressed himself in a tail-coat, and three times he had discarded it for an old dressing-gown; three times he had placed his pearl tie-pin in position, and three times he had removed it again, the little looking-glass in his room being the witness of these changes of mind. The question was, which would Katharine prefer on this particular afternoon in December? He read her note once more, and the postscript about the sonnet settled the matter. Evidently she admired most the poet in him; and as this, on the whole, agreed with his own opinion, he decided to err, if anything, on the side of shabbiness. His demeanor was also regulated with premeditation; he spoke little, and only on impersonal matters; he wished her to realize that in visiting him for the first time alone she was doing nothing remarkable, although, in fact, that was a point about which he was not at all sure.
Certainly Katharine seemed quite unmoved by any disturbing thoughts; and if he had been completely master of himself, he might, indeed, have complained that she was a trifle absent-minded. The ease, the familiarity of the situation alone with Rodney, among teacups and candles, had more effect upon her than was apparent. She asked to look at his books, and then at his pictures. It was while she held photograph from the Greek in her hands that she exclaimed, impulsively, if incongruously:
“My oysters! I had a basket,” she explained, “and I’ve left it somewhere. Uncle Dudley dines with us to-night. What in the world have I done with them?”
She rose and began to wander about the room. William rose also, and stood in front of the fire, muttering, “Oysters, oysters—your basket of oysters!” but though he looked vaguely here and there, as if the oysters might be on the top of the bookshelf, his eyes returned always to Katharine. She drew the curtain and looked out among the scanty leaves of the plane-trees.
“I had them,” she calculated, “in the Strand; I sat on a seat. Well, never mind,” she concluded, turning back into the room abruptly, “I dare say some old creature is enjoying them by this time.”
“I should have thought that you never forgot anything,” William remarked, as they settled down again.
“That’s part of the myth about me, I know,” Katharine replied.
“And I wonder,” William proceeded, with some caution, “what the truth about you is? But I know this sort of thing doesn’t interest you,” he added hastily, with a touch of peevishness.
“No; it doesn’t interest me very much,” she replied candidly.
“What shall we talk about then?” he asked.
She looked rather whimsically round the walls of the room.
“However we start, we end by talking about the same thing—about poetry, I mean. I wonder if you realize, William, that I’ve never read even Shakespeare? It’s rather wonderful how I’ve kept it up all these years.”
“You’ve kept it up for ten years very beautifully, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
“Ten years? So long as that?”
“And I don’t think it’s always bored you,” he added.
She looked into the fire silently. She could not deny that the surface of her feeling was absolutely unruffled by anything in William’s character; on the contrary, she felt certain that she could deal with whatever turned up. He gave her peace, in which she could think of things that were far removed from what they talked about. Even now, when he sat within a yard of her, how easily her mind ranged hither and thither! Suddenly a picture presented itself before her, without any effort on her part as pictures will, of herself in these very rooms; she had come in from a lecture, and she held a pile of books in her hand, scientific books, and books about mathematics and astronomy which she had mastered. She put them down on the table over there. It was a picture plucked from her life two or three years hence, when she was married to William; but here she checked herself abruptly.
She could not entirely forget William’s presence, because, in spite of his efforts to control himself, his nervousness was apparent. On such occasions his eyes protruded more than ever, and his face had more than ever the appearance of being covered with a thin crackling skin, through which every flush of his volatile blood showed itself instantly. By this time he had shaped so many sentences and rejected them, felt so many impulses and subdued them, that he was a uniform scarlet.
“You may say you don’t read books,” he remarked, “but, all the same, you know about them. Besides, who wants you to be learned? Leave that to the poor devils who’ve got nothing better to do. You—you—ahem!—”
“Well, then, why don’t you read me something before I go?” said Katharine, looking at her watch.
“Katharine, you’ve only just come! Let me see now, what have I got to show you?” He rose, and stirred about the papers on his table, as if in doubt; he then picked up a manuscript, and after spreading it smoothly upon his knee, he looked up at Katharine suspiciously. He caught her smiling.
“I believe you only ask me to read out of kindness,” he burst out. “Let’s find something else to talk about. Who have you been seeing?”
“I don’t generally ask things out of kindness,” Katharine observed; “however, if you don’t want to read, you needn’t.”
William gave a queer snort of exasperation, and opened his manuscript once more, though he kept his eyes upon her face as he did so. No face could have been graver or more judicial.
“One can trust you, certainly, to say unpleasant things,” he said, smoothing out the page, clearing his throat, and reading half a stanza to himself. “Ahem! The Princess is lost in the wood, and she hears the sound of a horn. (This would all be very pretty on the stage, but I can’t get the effect here.) Anyhow, Sylvano enters, accompanied by the rest of the gentlemen of Gratian’s court. I begin where he soliloquizes.” He jerked his head and began to read.
Although Katharine had just disclaimed any knowledge of literature, she listened attentively. At least, she listened to the first twenty-five lines attentively, and then she frowned. Her attention was only aroused again when Rodney raised his finger—a sign, she knew, that the meter was about to change.
His theory was that every mood has its meter. His mastery of meters was very great; and, if the beauty of a drama depended upon the variety of measures in which the personages speak, Rodney’s plays must have challenged the works of Shakespeare. Katharine’s ignorance of Shakespeare did not prevent her from feeling fairly certain that plays should not produce a sense of chill stupor in the audience, such as overcame her as the lines flowed on, sometimes long and sometimes short, but always delivered with the same lilt of voice, which seemed to nail each line firmly on to the same spot in the hearer’s brain. Still, she reflected, these sorts of skill are almost exclusively masculine; women neither practice them nor know how to value them; and one’s husband’s proficiency in this direction might legitimately increase one’s respect for him, since mystification is no bad basis for respect. No one could doubt that William was a scholar. The reading ended with the finish of the Act; Katharine had prepared a little speech.
“That seems to me extremely well written, William; although, of course, I don’t know enough to criticize in detail.”
“But it’s the skill that strikes you—not the emotion?”
“In a fragment like that, of course, the skill strikes one most.”
“But perhaps—have you time to listen to one more short piece? the scene between the lovers? There’s some real feeling in that, I think. Denham agrees that it’s the best thing I’ve done.”
“You’ve read it to Ralph Denham?” Katharine inquired, with surprise. “He’s a better judge than I am. What did he say?”
“My dear Katharine,” Rodney exclaimed, “I don’t ask you for criticism, as I should ask a scholar. I dare say there are only five men in England whose opinion of my work matters a straw to me. But I trust you where feeling is concerned. I had you in my mind often when I was writing those scenes. I kept asking myself, ‘Now is this the sort of thing Katharine would like?’ I always think of you when I’m writing, Katharine, even when it’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t know about. And I’d rather—yes, I really believe I’d rather—you thought well of my writing than any one in the world.”
This was so genuine a tribute to his trust in her that Katharine was touched.
“You think too much of me altogether, William,” she said, forgetting that she had not meant to speak in this way.
“No, Katharine, I don’t,” he replied, replacing his manuscript in the drawer. “It does me good to think of you.”
So quiet an answer, followed as it was by no expression of love, but merely by the statement that if she must go he would take her to the Strand, and would, if she could wait a moment, change his dressing-gown for a coat, moved her to the warmest feeling of affection for him that she had yet experienced. While he changed in the next room, she stood by the bookcase, taking down books and opening them, but reading nothing on their pages.
She felt certain that she would marry Rodney. How could one avoid it? How could one find fault with it? Here she sighed, and, putting the thought of marriage away, fell into a dream state, in which she became another person, and the whole world seemed changed. Being a frequent visitor to that world, she could find her way there unhesitatingly. If she had tried to analyze her impressions, she would have said that there dwelt the realities of the appearances which figure in our world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there, compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in flying glimpses only. No doubt much of the furniture of this world was drawn directly from the past, and even from the England of the Elizabethan age. However the embellishment of this imaginary world might change, two qualities were constant in it. It was a place where feelings were liberated from the constraint which the real world puts upon them; and the process of awakenment was always marked by resignation and a kind of stoical acceptance of facts. She met no acquaintance there, as Denham did, miraculously transfigured; she played no heroic part. But there certainly she loved some magnanimous hero, and as they swept together among the leaf-hung trees of an unknown world, they shared the feelings which came fresh and fast as the waves on the shore. But the sands of her liberation were running fast; even through the forest branches came sounds of Rodney moving things on his dressing-table; and Katharine woke herself from this excursion by shutting the cover of the book she was holding, and replacing it in the bookshelf.
“William,” she said, speaking rather faintly at first, like one sending a voice from sleep to reach the living. “William,” she repeated firmly, “if you still want me to marry you, I will.”
Perhaps it was that no man could expect to have the most momentous question of his life settled in a voice so level, so toneless, so devoid of joy or energy. At any rate William made no answer. She waited stoically. A moment later he stepped briskly from his dressing-room, and observed that if she wanted to buy more oysters he thought he knew where they could find a fishmonger’s shop still open. She breathed deeply a sigh of relief.
Extract from a letter sent a few days later by Mrs. Hilbery to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Milvain:
“... How stupid of me to forget the name in my telegram. Such a nice, rich, English name, too, and, in addition, he has all the graces of intellect; he has read literally EVERYTHING. I tell Katharine, I shall always put him on my right side at dinner, so as to have him by me when people begin talking about characters in Shakespeare. They won’t be rich, but they’ll be very, very happy. I was sitting in my room late one night, feeling that nothing nice would ever happen to me again, when I heard Katharine outside in the passage, and I thought to myself, ‘Shall I call her in?’ and then I thought (in that hopeless, dreary way one does think, with the fire going out and one’s birthday just over), ‘Why should I lay my troubles on HER?’ But my little self-control had its reward, for next moment she tapped at the door and came in, and sat on the rug, and though we neither of us said anything, I felt so happy all of a second that I couldn’t help crying, ‘Oh, Katharine, when you come to my age, how I hope you’ll have a daughter, too!’ You know how silent Katharine is. She was so silent, for such a long time, that in my foolish, nervous state I dreaded something, I don’t quite know what. And then she told me how, after all, she had made up her mind. She had written. She expected him to-morrow. At first I wasn’t glad at all. I didn’t want her to marry any one; but when she said, ‘It will make no difference. I shall always care for you and father most,’ then I saw how selfish I was, and I told her she must give him everything, everything, everything! I told her I should be thankful to come second. But why, when everything’s turned out just as one always hoped it would turn out, why then can one do nothing but cry, nothing but feel a desolate old woman whose life’s been a failure, and now is nearly over, and age is so cruel? But Katharine said to me, ‘I am happy. I’m very happy.’ And then I thought, though it all seemed so desperately dismal at the time, Katharine had said she was happy, and I should have a son, and it would all turn out so much more wonderfully than I could possibly imagine, for though the sermons don’t say so, I do believe the world is meant for us to be happy in. She told me that they would live quite near us, and see us every day; and she would go on with the Life, and we should finish it as we had meant to. And, after all, it would be far more horrid if she didn’t marry—or suppose she married some one we couldn’t endure? Suppose she had fallen in love with some one who was married already?
“And though one never thinks any one good enough for the people one’s fond of, he has the kindest, truest instincts, I’m sure, and though he seems nervous and his manner is not commanding, I only think these things because it’s Katharine. And now I’ve written this, it comes over me that, of course, all the time, Katharine has what he hasn’t. She does command, she isn’t nervous; it comes naturally to her to rule and control. It’s time that she should give all this to some one who will need her when we aren’t there, save in our spirits, for whatever people say, I’m sure I shall come back to this wonderful world where one’s been so happy and so miserable, where, even now, I seem to see myself stretching out my hands for another present from the great Fairy Tree whose boughs are still hung with enchanting toys, though they are rarer now, perhaps, and between the branches one sees no longer the blue sky, but the stars and the tops of the mountains.
“One doesn’t know any more, does one? One hasn’t any advice to give one’s children. One can only hope that they will have the same vision and the same power to believe, without which life would be so meaningless. That is what I ask for Katharine and her husband.”