When Ralph Denham entered the room and saw Katharine seated with her back to him, he was conscious of a change in the grade of the atmosphere such as a traveler meets with sometimes upon the roads, particularly after sunset, when, without warning, he runs from clammy chill to a hoard of unspent warmth in which the sweetness of hay and beanfield is cherished, as if the sun still shone although the moon is up. He hesitated; he shuddered; he walked elaborately to the window and laid aside his coat. He balanced his stick most carefully against the folds of the curtain. Thus occupied with his own sensations and preparations, he had little time to observe what either of the other two was feeling. Such symptoms of agitation as he might perceive (and they had left their tokens in brightness of eye and pallor of cheeks) seemed to him well befitting the actors in so great a drama as that of Katharine Hilbery’s daily life. Beauty and passion were the breath of her being, he thought.
She scarcely noticed his presence, or only as it forced her to adopt a manner of composure, which she was certainly far from feeling. William, however, was even more agitated than she was, and her first instalment of promised help took the form of some commonplace upon the age of the building or the architect’s name, which gave him an excuse to fumble in a drawer for certain designs, which he laid upon the table between the three of them.
Which of the three followed the designs most carefully it would be difficult to tell, but it is certain that not one of the three found for the moment anything to say. Years of training in a drawing-room came at length to Katharine’s help, and she said something suitable, at the same moment withdrawing her hand from the table because she perceived that it trembled. William agreed effusively; Denham corroborated him, speaking in rather high-pitched tones; they thrust aside the plans, and drew nearer to the fireplace.
“I’d rather live here than anywhere in the whole of London,” said Denham.
(“And I’ve got nowhere to live”) Katharine thought, as she agreed aloud.
“You could get rooms here, no doubt, if you wanted to,” Rodney replied.
“But I’m just leaving London for good—I’ve taken that cottage I was telling you about.” The announcement seemed to convey very little to either of his hearers.
“Indeed?—that’s sad.... You must give me your address. But you won’t cut yourself off altogether, surely—”
“You’ll be moving, too, I suppose,” Denham remarked.
William showed such visible signs of floundering that Katharine collected herself and asked:
“Where is the cottage you’ve taken?”
In answering her, Denham turned and looked at her. As their eyes met, she realized for the first time that she was talking to Ralph Denham, and she remembered, without recalling any details, that she had been speaking of him quite lately, and that she had reason to think ill of him. What Mary had said she could not remember, but she felt that there was a mass of knowledge in her mind which she had not had time to examine—knowledge now lying on the far side of a gulf. But her agitation flashed the queerest lights upon her past. She must get through the matter in hand, and then think it out in quiet. She bent her mind to follow what Ralph was saying. He was telling her that he had taken a cottage in Norfolk, and she was saying that she knew, or did not know, that particular neighborhood. But after a moment’s attention her mind flew to Rodney, and she had an unusual, indeed unprecedented, sense that they were in touch and shared each other’s thoughts. If only Ralph were not there, she would at once give way to her desire to take William’s hand, then to bend his head upon her shoulder, for this was what she wanted to do more than anything at the moment, unless, indeed, she wished more than anything to be alone—yes, that was what she wanted. She was sick to death of these discussions; she shivered at the effort to reveal her feelings. She had forgotten to answer. William was speaking now.
“But what will you find to do in the country?” she asked at random, striking into a conversation which she had only half heard, in such a way as to make both Rodney and Denham look at her with a little surprise. But directly she took up the conversation, it was William’s turn to fall silent. He at once forgot to listen to what they were saying, although he interposed nervously at intervals, “Yes, yes, yes.” As the minutes passed, Ralph’s presence became more and more intolerable to him, since there was so much that he must say to Katharine; the moment he could not talk to her, terrible doubts, unanswerable questions accumulated, which he must lay before Katharine, for she alone could help him now. Unless he could see her alone, it would be impossible for him ever to sleep, or to know what he had said in a moment of madness, which was not altogether mad, or was it mad? He nodded his head, and said, nervously, “Yes, yes,” and looked at Katharine, and thought how beautiful she looked; there was no one in the world that he admired more. There was an emotion in her face which lent it an expression he had never seen there. Then, as he was turning over means by which he could speak to her alone, she rose, and he was taken by surprise, for he had counted on the fact that she would outstay Denham. His only chance, then, of saying something to her in private, was to take her downstairs and walk with her to the street. While he hesitated, however, overcome with the difficulty of putting one simple thought into words when all his thoughts were scattered about, and all were too strong for utterance, he was struck silent by something that was still more unexpected. Denham got up from his chair, looked at Katharine, and said:
“I’m going, too. Shall we go together?”
And before William could see any way of detaining him—or would it be better to detain Katharine?—he had taken his hat, stick, and was holding the door open for Katharine to pass out. The most that William could do was to stand at the head of the stairs and say good-night. He could not offer to go with them. He could not insist that she should stay. He watched her descend, rather slowly, owing to the dusk of the staircase, and he had a last sight of Denham’s head and of Katharine’s head near together, against the panels, when suddenly a pang of acute jealousy overcame him, and had he not remained conscious of the slippers upon his feet, he would have run after them or cried out. As it was he could not move from the spot. At the turn of the staircase Katharine turned to look back, trusting to this last glance to seal their compact of good friendship. Instead of returning her silent greeting, William grinned back at her a cold stare of sarcasm or of rage.
She stopped dead for a moment, and then descended slowly into the court. She looked to the right and to the left, and once up into the sky. She was only conscious of Denham as a block upon her thoughts. She measured the distance that must be traversed before she would be alone. But when they came to the Strand no cabs were to be seen, and Denham broke the silence by saying:
“There seem to be no cabs. Shall we walk on a little?”
“Very well,” she agreed, paying no attention to him.
Aware of her preoccupation, or absorbed in his own thoughts, Ralph said nothing further; and in silence they walked some distance along the Strand. Ralph was doing his best to put his thoughts into such order that one came before the rest, and the determination that when he spoke he should speak worthily, made him put off the moment of speaking till he had found the exact words and even the place that best suited him. The Strand was too busy. There was too much risk, also, of finding an empty cab. Without a word of explanation he turned to the left, down one of the side streets leading to the river. On no account must they part until something of the very greatest importance had happened. He knew perfectly well what he wished to say, and had arranged not only the substance, but the order in which he was to say it. Now, however, that he was alone with her, not only did he find the difficulty of speaking almost insurmountable, but he was aware that he was angry with her for thus disturbing him, and casting, as it was so easy for a person of her advantages to do, these phantoms and pitfalls across his path. He was determined that he would question her as severely as he would question himself; and make them both, once and for all, either justify her dominance or renounce it. But the longer they walked thus alone, the more he was disturbed by the sense of her actual presence. Her skirt blew; the feathers in her hat waved; sometimes he saw her a step or two ahead of him, or had to wait for her to catch him up.
The silence was prolonged, and at length drew her attention to him. First she was annoyed that there was no cab to free her from his company; then she recalled vaguely something that Mary had said to make her think ill of him; she could not remember what, but the recollection, combined with his masterful ways—why did he walk so fast down this side street?—made her more and more conscious of a person of marked, though disagreeable, force by her side. She stopped and, looking round her for a cab, sighted one in the distance. He was thus precipitated into speech.
“Should you mind if we walked a little farther?” he asked. “There’s something I want to say to you.”
“Very well,” she replied, guessing that his request had something to do with Mary Datchet.
“It’s quieter by the river,” he said, and instantly he crossed over. “I want to ask you merely this,” he began. But he paused so long that she could see his head against the sky; the slope of his thin cheek and his large, strong nose were clearly marked against it. While he paused, words that were quite different from those he intended to use presented themselves.
“I’ve made you my standard ever since I saw you. I’ve dreamt about you; I’ve thought of nothing but you; you represent to me the only reality in the world.”
His words, and the queer strained voice in which he spoke them, made it appear as if he addressed some person who was not the woman beside him, but some one far away.
“And now things have come to such a pass that, unless I can speak to you openly, I believe I shall go mad. I think of you as the most beautiful, the truest thing in the world,” he continued, filled with a sense of exaltation, and feeling that he had no need now to choose his words with pedantic accuracy, for what he wanted to say was suddenly become plain to him.
“I see you everywhere, in the stars, in the river; to me you’re everything that exists; the reality of everything. Life, I tell you, would be impossible without you. And now I want—”
She had heard him so far with a feeling that she had dropped some material word which made sense of the rest. She could hear no more of this unintelligible rambling without checking him. She felt that she was overhearing what was meant for another.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “You’re saying things that you don’t mean.”
“I mean every word I say,” he replied, emphatically. He turned his head towards her. She recovered the words she was searching for while he spoke. “Ralph Denham is in love with you.” They came back to her in Mary Datchet’s voice. Her anger blazed up in her.
“I saw Mary Datchet this afternoon,” she exclaimed.
He made a movement as if he were surprised or taken aback, but answered in a moment:
“She told you that I had asked her to marry me, I suppose?”
“No!” Katharine exclaimed, in surprise.
“I did though. It was the day I saw you at Lincoln,” he continued. “I had meant to ask her to marry me, and then I looked out of the window and saw you. After that I didn’t want to ask any one to marry me. But I did it; and she knew I was lying, and refused me. I thought then, and still think, that she cares for me. I behaved very badly. I don’t defend myself.”
“No,” said Katharine, “I should hope not. There’s no defence that I can think of. If any conduct is wrong, that is.” She spoke with an energy that was directed even more against herself than against him. “It seems to me,” she continued, with the same energy, “that people are bound to be honest. There’s no excuse for such behavior.” She could now see plainly before her eyes the expression on Mary Datchet’s face.
After a short pause, he said:
“I am not telling you that I am in love with you. I am not in love with you.”
“I didn’t think that,” she replied, conscious of some bewilderment.
“I have not spoken a word to you that I do not mean,” he added.
“Tell me then what it is that you mean,” she said at length.
As if obeying a common instinct, they both stopped and, bending slightly over the balustrade of the river, looked into the flowing water.
“You say that we’ve got to be honest,” Ralph began. “Very well. I will try to tell you the facts; but I warn you, you’ll think me mad. It’s a fact, though, that since I first saw you four or five months ago I have made you, in an utterly absurd way, I expect, my ideal. I’m almost ashamed to tell you what lengths I’ve gone to. It’s become the thing that matters most in my life.” He checked himself. “Without knowing you, except that you’re beautiful, and all that, I’ve come to believe that we’re in some sort of agreement; that we’re after something together; that we see something.... I’ve got into the habit of imagining you; I’m always thinking what you’d say or do; I walk along the street talking to you; I dream of you. It’s merely a bad habit, a schoolboy habit, day-dreaming; it’s a common experience; half one’s friends do the same; well, those are the facts.”
Simultaneously, they both walked on very slowly.
“If you were to know me you would feel none of this,” she said. “We don’t know each other—we’ve always been—interrupted.... Were you going to tell me this that day my aunts came?” she asked, recollecting the whole scene.
He bowed his head.
“The day you told me of your engagement,” he said.
She thought, with a start, that she was no longer engaged.
“I deny that I should cease to feel this if I knew you,” he went on. “I should feel it more reasonably—that’s all. I shouldn’t talk the kind of nonsense I’ve talked to-night.... But it wasn’t nonsense. It was the truth,” he said doggedly. “It’s the important thing. You can force me to talk as if this feeling for you were an hallucination, but all our feelings are that. The best of them are half illusions. Still,” he added, as if arguing to himself, “if it weren’t as real a feeling as I’m capable of, I shouldn’t be changing my life on your account.”
“What do you mean?” she inquired.
“I told you. I’m taking a cottage. I’m giving up my profession.”
“On my account?” she asked, in amazement.
“Yes, on your account,” he replied. He explained his meaning no further.
“But I don’t know you or your circumstances,” she said at last, as he remained silent.
“You have no opinion about me one way or the other?”
“Yes, I suppose I have an opinion—” she hesitated.
He controlled his wish to ask her to explain herself, and much to his pleasure she went on, appearing to search her mind.
“I thought that you criticized me—perhaps disliked me. I thought of you as a person who judges—”
“No; I’m a person who feels,” he said, in a low voice.
“Tell me, then, what has made you do this?” she asked, after a break.
He told her in an orderly way, betokening careful preparation, all that he had meant to say at first; how he stood with regard to his brothers and sisters; what his mother had said, and his sister Joan had refrained from saying; exactly how many pounds stood in his name at the bank; what prospect his brother had of earning a livelihood in America; how much of their income went on rent, and other details known to him by heart. She listened to all this, so that she could have passed an examination in it by the time Waterloo Bridge was in sight; and yet she was no more listening to it than she was counting the paving-stones at her feet. She was feeling happier than she had felt in her life. If Denham could have seen how visibly books of algebraic symbols, pages all speckled with dots and dashes and twisted bars, came before her eyes as they trod the Embankment, his secret joy in her attention might have been dispersed. She went on, saying, “Yes, I see.... But how would that help you?... Your brother has passed his examination?” so sensibly, that he had constantly to keep his brain in check; and all the time she was in fancy looking up through a telescope at white shadow-cleft disks which were other worlds, until she felt herself possessed of two bodies, one walking by the river with Denham, the other concentrated to a silver globe aloft in the fine blue space above the scum of vapors that was covering the visible world. She looked at the sky once, and saw that no star was keen enough to pierce the flight of watery clouds now coursing rapidly before the west wind. She looked down hurriedly again. There was no reason, she assured herself, for this feeling of happiness; she was not free; she was not alone; she was still bound to earth by a million fibres; every step took her nearer home. Nevertheless, she exulted as she had never exulted before. The air was fresher, the lights more distinct, the cold stone of the balustrade colder and harder, when by chance or purpose she struck her hand against it. No feeling of annoyance with Denham remained; he certainly did not hinder any flight she might choose to make, whether in the direction of the sky or of her home; but that her condition was due to him, or to anything that he had said, she had no consciousness at all.
They were now within sight of the stream of cabs and omnibuses crossing to and from the Surrey side of the river; the sound of the traffic, the hooting of motor-horns, and the light chime of tram-bells sounded more and more distinctly, and, with the increase of noise, they both became silent. With a common instinct they slackened their pace, as if to lengthen the time of semi-privacy allowed them. To Ralph, the pleasure of these last yards of the walk with Katharine was so great that he could not look beyond the present moment to the time when she should have left him. He had no wish to use the last moments of their companionship in adding fresh words to what he had already said. Since they had stopped talking, she had become to him not so much a real person, as the very woman he dreamt of; but his solitary dreams had never produced any such keenness of sensation as that which he felt in her presence. He himself was also strangely transfigured. He had complete mastery of all his faculties. For the first time he was in possession of his full powers. The vistas which opened before him seemed to have no perceptible end. But the mood had none of the restlessness or feverish desire to add one delight to another which had hitherto marked, and somewhat spoilt, the most rapturous of his imaginings. It was a mood that took such clear-eyed account of the conditions of human life that he was not disturbed in the least by the gliding presence of a taxicab, and without agitation he perceived that Katharine was conscious of it also, and turned her head in that direction. Their halting steps acknowledged the desirability of engaging the cab; and they stopped simultaneously, and signed to it.
“Then you will let me know your decision as soon as you can?” he asked, with his hand on the door.
She hesitated for a moment. She could not immediately recall what the question was that she had to decide.
“I will write,” she said vaguely. “No,” she added, in a second, bethinking her of the difficulties of writing anything decided upon a question to which she had paid no attention, “I don’t see how to manage it.”
She stood looking at Denham, considering and hesitating, with her foot upon the step. He guessed her difficulties; he knew in a second that she had heard nothing; he knew everything that she felt.
“There’s only one place to discuss things satisfactorily that I know of,” he said quickly; “that’s Kew.”
“Kew,” he repeated, with immense decision. He shut the door and gave her address to the driver. She instantly was conveyed away from him, and her cab joined the knotted stream of vehicles, each marked by a light, and indistinguishable one from the other. He stood watching for a moment, and then, as if swept by some fierce impulse, from the spot where they had stood, he turned, crossed the road at a rapid pace, and disappeared.
He walked on upon the impetus of this last mood of almost supernatural exaltation until he reached a narrow street, at this hour empty of traffic and passengers. Here, whether it was the shops with their shuttered windows, the smooth and silvered curve of the wood pavement, or a natural ebb of feeling, his exaltation slowly oozed and deserted him. He was now conscious of the loss that follows any revelation; he had lost something in speaking to Katharine, for, after all, was the Katharine whom he loved the same as the real Katharine? She had transcended her entirely at moments; her skirt had blown, her feather waved, her voice spoken; yes, but how terrible sometimes the pause between the voice of one’s dreams and the voice that comes from the object of one’s dreams! He felt a mixture of disgust and pity at the figure cut by human beings when they try to carry out, in practice, what they have the power to conceive. How small both he and Katharine had appeared when they issued from the cloud of thought that enveloped them! He recalled the small, inexpressive, commonplace words in which they had tried to communicate with each other; he repeated them over to himself. By repeating Katharine’s words, he came in a few moments to such a sense of her presence that he worshipped her more than ever. But she was engaged to be married, he remembered with a start. The strength of his feeling was revealed to him instantly, and he gave himself up to an irresistible rage and sense of frustration. The image of Rodney came before him with every circumstance of folly and indignity. That little pink-cheeked dancing-master to marry Katharine? that gibbering ass with the face of a monkey on an organ? that posing, vain, fantastical fop? with his tragedies and his comedies, his innumerable spites and prides and pettinesses? Lord! marry Rodney! She must be as great a fool as he was. His bitterness took possession of him, and as he sat in the corner of the underground carriage, he looked as stark an image of unapproachable severity as could be imagined. Directly he reached home he sat down at his table, and began to write Katharine a long, wild, mad letter, begging her for both their sakes to break with Rodney, imploring her not to do what would destroy for ever the one beauty, the one truth, the one hope; not to be a traitor, not to be a deserter, for if she were—and he wound up with a quiet and brief assertion that, whatever she did or left undone, he would believe to be the best, and accept from her with gratitude. He covered sheet after sheet, and heard the early carts starting for London before he went to bed.