Chapter XXI

Mary walked to the nearest station and reached home in an incredibly short space of time, just so much, indeed, as was needed for the intelligent understanding of the news of the world as the “Westminster Gazette” reported it. Within a few minutes of opening her door, she was in trim for a hard evening’s work. She unlocked a drawer and took out a manuscript, which consisted of a very few pages, entitled, in a forcible hand, “Some Aspects of the Democratic State.” The aspects dwindled out in a cries-cross of blotted lines in the very middle of a sentence, and suggested that the author had been interrupted, or convinced of the futility of proceeding, with her pen in the air.... Oh, yes, Ralph had come in at that point. She scored that sheet very effectively, and, choosing a fresh one, began at a great rate with a generalization upon the structure of human society, which was a good deal bolder than her custom. Ralph had told her once that she couldn’t write English, which accounted for those frequent blots and insertions; but she put all that behind her, and drove ahead with such words as came her way, until she had accomplished half a page of generalization and might legitimately draw breath. Directly her hand stopped her brain stopped too, and she began to listen. A paper-boy shouted down the street; an omnibus ceased and lurched on again with the heave of duty once more shouldered; the dullness of the sounds suggested that a fog had risen since her return, if, indeed, a fog has power to deaden sound, of which fact, she could not be sure at the present moment. It was the sort of fact Ralph Denham knew. At any rate, it was no concern of hers, and she was about to dip a pen when her ear was caught by the sound of a step upon the stone staircase. She followed it past Mr. Chippen’s chambers; past Mr. Gibson’s; past Mr. Turner’s; after which it became her sound. A postman, a washerwoman, a circular, a bill—she presented herself with each of these perfectly natural possibilities; but, to her surprise, her mind rejected each one of them impatiently, even apprehensively. The step became slow, as it was apt to do at the end of the steep climb, and Mary, listening for the regular sound, was filled with an intolerable nervousness. Leaning against the table, she felt the knock of her heart push her body perceptibly backwards and forwards—a state of nerves astonishing and reprehensible in a stable woman. Grotesque fancies took shape. Alone, at the top of the house, an unknown person approaching nearer and nearer—how could she escape? There was no way of escape. She did not even know whether that oblong mark on the ceiling was a trap-door to the roof or not. And if she got on to the roof—well, there was a drop of sixty feet or so on to the pavement. But she sat perfectly still, and when the knock sounded, she got up directly and opened the door without hesitation. She saw a tall figure outside, with something ominous to her eyes in the look of it.

“What do you want?” she said, not recognizing the face in the fitful light of the staircase.

“Mary? I’m Katharine Hilbery!”

Mary’s self-possession returned almost excessively, and her welcome was decidedly cold, as if she must recoup herself for this ridiculous waste of emotion. She moved her green-shaded lamp to another table, and covered “Some Aspects of the Democratic State” with a sheet of blotting-paper.

“Why can’t they leave me alone?” she thought bitterly, connecting Katharine and Ralph in a conspiracy to take from her even this hour of solitary study, even this poor little defence against the world. And, as she smoothed down the sheet of blotting-paper over the manuscript, she braced herself to resist Katharine, whose presence struck her, not merely by its force, as usual, but as something in the nature of a menace.

“You’re working?” said Katharine, with hesitation, perceiving that she was not welcome.

“Nothing that matters,” Mary replied, drawing forward the best of the chairs and poking the fire.

“I didn’t know you had to work after you had left the office,” said Katharine, in a tone which gave the impression that she was thinking of something else, as was, indeed, the case.

She had been paying calls with her mother, and in between the calls Mrs. Hilbery had rushed into shops and bought pillow-cases and blotting-books on no perceptible method for the furnishing of Katharine’s house. Katharine had a sense of impedimenta accumulating on all sides of her. She had left her at length, and had come on to keep an engagement to dine with Rodney at his rooms. But she did not mean to get to him before seven o’clock, and so had plenty of time to walk all the way from Bond Street to the Temple if she wished it. The flow of faces streaming on either side of her had hypnotized her into a mood of profound despondency, to which her expectation of an evening alone with Rodney contributed. They were very good friends again, better friends, they both said, than ever before. So far as she was concerned this was true. There were many more things in him than she had guessed until emotion brought them forth—strength, affection, sympathy. And she thought of them and looked at the faces passing, and thought how much alike they were, and how distant, nobody feeling anything as she felt nothing, and distance, she thought, lay inevitably between the closest, and their intimacy was the worst presence of all. For, “Oh dear,” she thought, looking into a tobacconist’s window, “I don’t care for any of them, and I don’t care for William, and people say this is the thing that matters most, and I can’t see what they mean by it.”

She looked desperately at the smooth-bowled pipes, and wondered—should she walk on by the Strand or by the Embankment? It was not a simple question, for it concerned not different streets so much as different streams of thought. If she went by the Strand she would force herself to think out the problem of the future, or some mathematical problem; if she went by the river she would certainly begin to think about things that didn’t exist—the forest, the ocean beach, the leafy solitudes, the magnanimous hero. No, no, no! A thousand times no!—it wouldn’t do; there was something repulsive in such thoughts at present; she must take something else; she was out of that mood at present. And then she thought of Mary; the thought gave her confidence, even pleasure of a sad sort, as if the triumph of Ralph and Mary proved that the fault of her failure lay with herself and not with life. An indistinct idea that the sight of Mary might be of help, combined with her natural trust in her, suggested a visit; for, surely, her liking was of a kind that implied liking upon Mary’s side also. After a moment’s hesitation she decided, although she seldom acted upon impulse, to act upon this one, and turned down a side street and found Mary’s door. But her reception was not encouraging; clearly Mary didn’t want to see her, had no help to impart, and the half-formed desire to confide in her was quenched immediately. She was slightly amused at her own delusion, looked rather absent-minded, and swung her gloves to and fro, as if doling out the few minutes accurately before she could say good-by.

Those few minutes might very well be spent in asking for information as to the exact position of the Suffrage Bill, or in expounding her own very sensible view of the situation. But there was a tone in her voice, or a shade in her opinions, or a swing of her gloves which served to irritate Mary Datchet, whose manner became increasingly direct, abrupt, and even antagonistic. She became conscious of a wish to make Katharine realize the importance of this work, which she discussed so coolly, as though she, too, had sacrificed what Mary herself had sacrificed. The swinging of the gloves ceased, and Katharine, after ten minutes, began to make movements preliminary to departure. At the sight of this, Mary was aware—she was abnormally aware of things to-night—of another very strong desire; Katharine was not to be allowed to go, to disappear into the free, happy world of irresponsible individuals. She must be made to realize—to feel.

“I don’t quite see,” she said, as if Katharine had challenged her explicitly, “how, things being as they are, any one can help trying, at least, to do something.”

“No. But how ARE things?”

Mary pressed her lips, and smiled ironically; she had Katharine at her mercy; she could, if she liked, discharge upon her head wagon-loads of revolting proof of the state of things ignored by the casual, the amateur, the looker-on, the cynical observer of life at a distance. And yet she hesitated. As usual, when she found herself in talk with Katharine, she began to feel rapid alternations of opinion about her, arrows of sensation striking strangely through the envelope of personality, which shelters us so conveniently from our fellows. What an egoist, how aloof she was! And yet, not in her words, perhaps, but in her voice, in her face, in her attitude, there were signs of a soft brooding spirit, of a sensibility unblunted and profound, playing over her thoughts and deeds, and investing her manner with an habitual gentleness. The arguments and phrases of Mr. Clacton fell flat against such armor.

“You’ll be married, and you’ll have other things to think of,” she said inconsequently, and with an accent of condescension. She was not going to make Katharine understand in a second, as she would, all she herself had learnt at the cost of such pain. No. Katharine was to be happy; Katharine was to be ignorant; Mary was to keep this knowledge of the impersonal life for herself. The thought of her morning’s renunciation stung her conscience, and she tried to expand once more into that impersonal condition which was so lofty and so painless. She must check this desire to be an individual again, whose wishes were in conflict with those of other people. She repented of her bitterness.

Katharine now renewed her signs of leave-taking; she had drawn on one of her gloves, and looked about her as if in search of some trivial saying to end with. Wasn’t there some picture, or clock, or chest of drawers which might be singled out for notice? something peaceable and friendly to end the uncomfortable interview? The green-shaded lamp burnt in the corner, and illumined books and pens and blotting-paper. The whole aspect of the place started another train of thought and struck her as enviably free; in such a room one could work—one could have a life of one’s own.

“I think you’re very lucky,” she observed. “I envy you, living alone and having your own things”—and engaged in this exalted way, which had no recognition or engagement-ring, she added in her own mind.

Mary’s lips parted slightly. She could not conceive in what respects Katharine, who spoke sincerely, could envy her.

“I don’t think you’ve got any reason to envy me,” she said.

“Perhaps one always envies other people,” Katharine observed vaguely.

“Well, but you’ve got everything that any one can want.”

Katharine remained silent. She gazed into the fire quietly, and without a trace of self-consciousness. The hostility which she had divined in Mary’s tone had completely disappeared, and she forgot that she had been upon the point of going.

“Well, I suppose I have,” she said at length. “And yet I sometimes think—” She paused; she did not know how to express what she meant.

“It came over me in the Tube the other day,” she resumed, with a smile; “what is it that makes these people go one way rather than the other? It’s not love; it’s not reason; I think it must be some idea. Perhaps, Mary, our affections are the shadow of an idea. Perhaps there isn’t any such thing as affection in itself....” She spoke half-mockingly, asking her question, which she scarcely troubled to frame, not of Mary, or of any one in particular.

But the words seemed to Mary Datchet shallow, supercilious, cold-blooded, and cynical all in one. All her natural instincts were roused in revolt against them.

“I’m the opposite way of thinking, you see,” she said.

“Yes; I know you are,” Katharine replied, looking at her as if now she were about, perhaps, to explain something very important.

Mary could not help feeling the simplicity and good faith that lay behind Katharine’s words.

“I think affection is the only reality,” she said.

“Yes,” said Katharine, almost sadly. She understood that Mary was thinking of Ralph, and she felt it impossible to press her to reveal more of this exalted condition; she could only respect the fact that, in some few cases, life arranged itself thus satisfactorily and pass on. She rose to her feet accordingly. But Mary exclaimed, with unmistakable earnestness, that she must not go; that they met so seldom; that she wanted to talk to her so much.... Katharine was surprised at the earnestness with which she spoke. It seemed to her that there could be no indiscretion in mentioning Ralph by name.

Seating herself “for ten minutes,” she said: “By the way, Mr. Denham told me he was going to give up the Bar and live in the country. Has he gone? He was beginning to tell me about it, when we were interrupted.”

“He thinks of it,” said Mary briefly. The color at once came to her face.

“It would be a very good plan,” said Katharine in her decided way.

“You think so?”

“Yes, because he would do something worth while; he would write a book. My father always says that he’s the most remarkable of the young men who write for him.”

Mary bent low over the fire and stirred the coal between the bars with a poker. Katharine’s mention of Ralph had roused within her an almost irresistible desire to explain to her the true state of the case between herself and Ralph. She knew, from the tone of her voice, that in speaking of Ralph she had no desire to probe Mary’s secrets, or to insinuate any of her own. Moreover, she liked Katharine; she trusted her; she felt a respect for her. The first step of confidence was comparatively simple; but a further confidence had revealed itself, as Katharine spoke, which was not so simple, and yet it impressed itself upon her as a necessity; she must tell Katharine what it was clear that she had no conception of—she must tell Katharine that Ralph was in love with her.

“I don’t know what he means to do,” she said hurriedly, seeking time against the pressure of her own conviction. “I’ve not seen him since Christmas.”

Katharine reflected that this was odd; perhaps, after all, she had misunderstood the position. She was in the habit of assuming, however, that she was rather unobservant of the finer shades of feeling, and she noted her present failure as another proof that she was a practical, abstract-minded person, better fitted to deal with figures than with the feelings of men and women. Anyhow, William Rodney would say so.

“And now—” she said.

“Oh, please stay!” Mary exclaimed, putting out her hand to stop her. Directly Katharine moved she felt, inarticulately and violently, that she could not bear to let her go. If Katharine went, her only chance of speaking was lost; her only chance of saying something tremendously important was lost. Half a dozen words were sufficient to wake Katharine’s attention, and put flight and further silence beyond her power. But although the words came to her lips, her throat closed upon them and drove them back. After all, she considered, why should she speak? Because it is right, her instinct told her; right to expose oneself without reservations to other human beings. She flinched from the thought. It asked too much of one already stripped bare. Something she must keep of her own. But if she did keep something of her own? Immediately she figured an immured life, continuing for an immense period, the same feelings living for ever, neither dwindling nor changing within the ring of a thick stone wall. The imagination of this loneliness frightened her, and yet to speak—to lose her loneliness, for it had already become dear to her, was beyond her power.

Her hand went down to the hem of Katharine’s skirt, and, fingering a line of fur, she bent her head as if to examine it.

“I like this fur,” she said, “I like your clothes. And you mustn’t think that I’m going to marry Ralph,” she continued, in the same tone, “because he doesn’t care for me at all. He cares for some one else.” Her head remained bent, and her hand still rested upon the skirt.

“It’s a shabby old dress,” said Katharine, and the only sign that Mary’s words had reached her was that she spoke with a little jerk.

“You don’t mind my telling you that?” said Mary, raising herself.

“No, no,” said Katharine; “but you’re mistaken, aren’t you?” She was, in truth, horribly uncomfortable, dismayed, indeed, disillusioned. She disliked the turn things had taken quite intensely. The indecency of it afflicted her. The suffering implied by the tone appalled her. She looked at Mary furtively, with eyes that were full of apprehension. But if she had hoped to find that these words had been spoken without understanding of their meaning, she was at once disappointed. Mary lay back in her chair, frowning slightly, and looking, Katharine thought, as if she had lived fifteen years or so in the space of a few minutes.

“There are some things, don’t you think, that one can’t be mistaken about?” Mary said, quietly and almost coldly. “That is what puzzles me about this question of being in love. I’ve always prided myself upon being reasonable,” she added. “I didn’t think I could have felt this—I mean if the other person didn’t. I was foolish. I let myself pretend.” Here she paused. “For, you see, Katharine,” she proceeded, rousing herself and speaking with greater energy, “I AM in love. There’s no doubt about that.... I’m tremendously in love... with Ralph.” The little forward shake of her head, which shook a lock of hair, together with her brighter color, gave her an appearance at once proud and defiant.

Katharine thought to herself, “That’s how it feels then.” She hesitated, with a feeling that it was not for her to speak; and then said, in a low tone, “You’ve got that.”

“Yes,” said Mary; “I’ve got that. One wouldn’t NOT be in love.... But I didn’t mean to talk about that; I only wanted you to know. There’s another thing I want to tell you...” She paused. “I haven’t any authority from Ralph to say it; but I’m sure of this—he’s in love with you.”

Katharine looked at her again, as if her first glance must have been deluded, for, surely, there must be some outward sign that Mary was talking in an excited, or bewildered, or fantastic manner. No; she still frowned, as if she sought her way through the clauses of a difficult argument, but she still looked more like one who reasons than one who feels.

“That proves that you’re mistaken—utterly mistaken,” said Katharine, speaking reasonably, too. She had no need to verify the mistake by a glance at her own recollections, when the fact was so clearly stamped upon her mind that if Ralph had any feeling towards her it was one of critical hostility. She did not give the matter another thought, and Mary, now that she had stated the fact, did not seek to prove it, but tried to explain to herself, rather than to Katharine, her motives in making the statement.

She had nerved herself to do what some large and imperious instinct demanded her doing; she had been swept on the breast of a wave beyond her reckoning.

“I’ve told you,” she said, “because I want you to help me. I don’t want to be jealous of you. And I am—I’m fearfully jealous. The only way, I thought, was to tell you.”

She hesitated, and groped in her endeavor to make her feelings clear to herself.

“If I tell you, then we can talk; and when I’m jealous, I can tell you. And if I’m tempted to do something frightfully mean, I can tell you; you could make me tell you. I find talking so difficult; but loneliness frightens me. I should shut it up in my mind. Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of. Going about with something in my mind all my life that never changes. I find it so difficult to change. When I think a thing’s wrong I never stop thinking it wrong, and Ralph was quite right, I see, when he said that there’s no such thing as right and wrong; no such thing, I mean, as judging people—”

“Ralph Denham said that?” said Katharine, with considerable indignation. In order to have produced such suffering in Mary, it seemed to her that he must have behaved with extreme callousness. It seemed to her that he had discarded the friendship, when it suited his convenience to do so, with some falsely philosophical theory which made his conduct all the worse. She was going on to express herself thus, had not Mary at once interrupted her.

“No, no,” she said; “you don’t understand. If there’s any fault it’s mine entirely; after all, if one chooses to run risks—”

Her voice faltered into silence. It was borne in upon her how completely in running her risk she had lost her prize, lost it so entirely that she had no longer the right, in talking of Ralph, to presume that her knowledge of him supplanted all other knowledge. She no longer completely possessed her love, since his share in it was doubtful; and now, to make things yet more bitter, her clear vision of the way to face life was rendered tremulous and uncertain, because another was witness of it. Feeling her desire for the old unshared intimacy too great to be borne without tears, she rose, walked to the farther end of the room, held the curtains apart, and stood there mastered for a moment. The grief itself was not ignoble; the sting of it lay in the fact that she had been led to this act of treachery against herself. Trapped, cheated, robbed, first by Ralph and then by Katharine, she seemed all dissolved in humiliation, and bereft of anything she could call her own. Tears of weakness welled up and rolled down her cheeks. But tears, at least, she could control, and would this instant, and then, turning, she would face Katharine, and retrieve what could be retrieved of the collapse of her courage.

She turned. Katharine had not moved; she was leaning a little forward in her chair and looking into the fire. Something in the attitude reminded Mary of Ralph. So he would sit, leaning forward, looking rather fixedly in front of him, while his mind went far away, exploring, speculating, until he broke off with his, “Well, Mary?”—and the silence, that had been so full of romance to her, gave way to the most delightful talk that she had ever known.

Something unfamiliar in the pose of the silent figure, something still, solemn, significant about it, made her hold her breath. She paused. Her thoughts were without bitterness. She was surprised by her own quiet and confidence. She came back silently, and sat once more by Katharine’s side. Mary had no wish to speak. In the silence she seemed to have lost her isolation; she was at once the sufferer and the pitiful spectator of suffering; she was happier than she had ever been; she was more bereft; she was rejected, and she was immensely beloved. Attempt to express these sensations was vain, and, moreover, she could not help believing that, without any words on her side, they were shared. Thus for some time longer they sat silent, side by side, while Mary fingered the fur on the skirt of the old dress.