Between twelve and one that Sunday night Katharine lay in bed, not asleep, but in that twilight region where a detached and humorous view of our own lot is possible; or if we must be serious, our seriousness is tempered by the swift oncome of slumber and oblivion. She saw the forms of Ralph, William, Cassandra, and herself, as if they were all equally unsubstantial, and, in putting off reality, had gained a kind of dignity which rested upon each impartially. Thus rid of any uncomfortable warmth of partisanship or load of obligation, she was dropping off to sleep when a light tap sounded upon her door. A moment later Cassandra stood beside her, holding a candle and speaking in the low tones proper to the time of night.
“Are you awake, Katharine?”
“Yes, I’m awake. What is it?”
She roused herself, sat up, and asked what in Heaven’s name Cassandra was doing?
“I couldn’t sleep, and I thought I’d come and speak to you—only for a moment, though. I’m going home to-morrow.”
“Home? Why, what has happened?”
“Something happened to-day which makes it impossible for me to stay here.”
Cassandra spoke formally, almost solemnly; the announcement was clearly prepared and marked a crisis of the utmost gravity. She continued what seemed to be part of a set speech.
“I have decided to tell you the whole truth, Katharine. William allowed himself to behave in a way which made me extremely uncomfortable to-day.”
Katharine seemed to waken completely, and at once to be in control of herself.
“At the Zoo?” she asked.
“No, on the way home. When we had tea.”
As if foreseeing that the interview might be long, and the night chilly, Katharine advised Cassandra to wrap herself in a quilt. Cassandra did so with unbroken solemnity.
“There’s a train at eleven,” she said. “I shall tell Aunt Maggie that I have to go suddenly.... I shall make Violet’s visit an excuse. But, after thinking it over, I don’t see how I can go without telling you the truth.”
She was careful to abstain from looking in Katharine’s direction. There was a slight pause.
“But I don’t see the least reason why you should go,” said Katharine eventually. Her voice sounded so astonishingly equable that Cassandra glanced at her. It was impossible to suppose that she was either indignant or surprised; she seemed, on the contrary, sitting up in bed, with her arms clasped round her knees and a little frown on her brow, to be thinking closely upon a matter of indifference to her.
“Because I can’t allow any man to behave to me in that way,” Cassandra replied, and she added, “particularly when I know that he is engaged to some one else.”
“But you like him, don’t you?” Katharine inquired.
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Cassandra exclaimed indignantly. “I consider his conduct, under the circumstances, most disgraceful.”
This was the last of the sentences of her premeditated speech; and having spoken it she was left unprovided with any more to say in that particular style. When Katharine remarked:
“I should say it had everything to do with it,” Cassandra’s self-possession deserted her.
“I don’t understand you in the least, Katharine. How can you behave as you behave? Ever since I came here I’ve been amazed by you!”
“You’ve enjoyed yourself, haven’t you?” Katharine asked.
“Yes, I have,” Cassandra admitted.
“Anyhow, my behavior hasn’t spoiled your visit.”
“No,” Cassandra allowed once more. She was completely at a loss. In her forecast of the interview she had taken it for granted that Katharine, after an outburst of incredulity, would agree that Cassandra must return home as soon as possible. But Katharine, on the contrary, accepted her statement at once, seemed neither shocked nor surprised, and merely looked rather more thoughtful than usual. From being a mature woman charged with an important mission, Cassandra shrunk to the stature of an inexperienced child.
“Do you think I’ve been very foolish about it?” she asked.
Katharine made no answer, but still sat deliberating silently, and a certain feeling of alarm took possession of Cassandra. Perhaps her words had struck far deeper than she had thought, into depths beyond her reach, as so much of Katharine was beyond her reach. She thought suddenly that she had been playing with very dangerous tools.
Looking at her at length, Katharine asked slowly, as if she found the question very difficult to ask.
“But do you care for William?”
She marked the agitation and bewilderment of the girl’s expression, and how she looked away from her.
“Do you mean, am I in love with him?” Cassandra asked, breathing quickly, and nervously moving her hands.
“Yes, in love with him,” Katharine repeated.
“How can I love the man you’re engaged to marry?” Cassandra burst out.
“He may be in love with you.”
“I don’t think you’ve any right to say such things, Katharine,” Cassandra exclaimed. “Why do you say them? Don’t you mind in the least how William behaves to other women? If I were engaged, I couldn’t bear it!”
“We’re not engaged,” said Katharine, after a pause.
“Katharine!” Cassandra cried.
“No, we’re not engaged,” Katharine repeated. “But no one knows it but ourselves.”
“But why—I don’t understand—you’re not engaged!” Cassandra said again. “Oh, that explains it! You’re not in love with him! You don’t want to marry him!”
“We aren’t in love with each other any longer,” said Katharine, as if disposing of something for ever and ever.
“How queer, how strange, how unlike other people you are, Katharine,” Cassandra said, her whole body and voice seeming to fall and collapse together, and no trace of anger or excitement remaining, but only a dreamy quietude.
“You’re not in love with him?”
“But I love him,” said Katharine.
Cassandra remained bowed, as if by the weight of the revelation, for some little while longer. Nor did Katharine speak. Her attitude was that of some one who wishes to be concealed as much as possible from observation. She sighed profoundly; she was absolutely silent, and apparently overcome by her thoughts.
“D’you know what time it is?” she said at length, and shook her pillow, as if making ready for sleep.
Cassandra rose obediently, and once more took up her candle. Perhaps the white dressing-gown, and the loosened hair, and something unseeing in the expression of the eyes gave her a likeness to a woman walking in her sleep. Katharine, at least, thought so.
“There’s no reason why I should go home, then?” Cassandra said, pausing. “Unless you want me to go, Katharine? What DO you want me to do?”
For the first time their eyes met.
“You wanted us to fall in love,” Cassandra exclaimed, as if she read the certainty there. But as she looked she saw a sight that surprised her. The tears rose slowly in Katharine’s eyes and stood there, brimming but contained—the tears of some profound emotion, happiness, grief, renunciation; an emotion so complex in its nature that to express it was impossible, and Cassandra, bending her head and receiving the tears upon her cheek, accepted them in silence as the consecration of her love.
“Please, miss,” said the maid, about eleven o’clock on the following morning, “Mrs. Milvain is in the kitchen.”
A long wicker basket of flowers and branches had arrived from the country, and Katharine, kneeling upon the floor of the drawing-room, was sorting them while Cassandra watched her from an arm-chair, and absent-mindedly made spasmodic offers of help which were not accepted. The maid’s message had a curious effect upon Katharine.
She rose, walked to the window, and, the maid being gone, said emphatically and even tragically:
“You know what that means.”
Cassandra had understood nothing.
“Aunt Celia is in the kitchen,” Katharine repeated.
“Why in the kitchen?” Cassandra asked, not unnaturally.
“Probably because she’s discovered something,” Katharine replied. Cassandra’s thoughts flew to the subject of her preoccupation.
“About us?” she inquired.
“Heaven knows,” Katharine replied. “I shan’t let her stay in the kitchen, though. I shall bring her up here.”
The sternness with which this was said suggested that to bring Aunt Celia upstairs was, for some reason, a disciplinary measure.
“For goodness’ sake, Katharine,” Cassandra exclaimed, jumping from her chair and showing signs of agitation, “don’t be rash. Don’t let her suspect. Remember, nothing’s certain—”
Katharine assured her by nodding her head several times, but the manner in which she left the room was not calculated to inspire complete confidence in her diplomacy.
Mrs. Milvain was sitting, or rather perching, upon the edge of a chair in the servants’ room. Whether there was any sound reason for her choice of a subterranean chamber, or whether it corresponded with the spirit of her quest, Mrs. Milvain invariably came in by the back door and sat in the servants’ room when she was engaged in confidential family transactions. The ostensible reason she gave was that neither Mr. nor Mrs. Hilbery should be disturbed. But, in truth, Mrs. Milvain depended even more than most elderly women of her generation upon the delicious emotions of intimacy, agony, and secrecy, and the additional thrill provided by the basement was one not lightly to be forfeited. She protested almost plaintively when Katharine proposed to go upstairs.
“I’ve something that I want to say to you in PRIVATE,” she said, hesitating reluctantly upon the threshold of her ambush.
“The drawing-room is empty—”
“But we might meet your mother upon the stairs. We might disturb your father,” Mrs. Milvain objected, taking the precaution to speak in a whisper already.
But as Katharine’s presence was absolutely necessary to the success of the interview, and as Katharine obstinately receded up the kitchen stairs, Mrs. Milvain had no course but to follow her. She glanced furtively about her as she proceeded upstairs, drew her skirts together, and stepped with circumspection past all doors, whether they were open or shut.
“Nobody will overhear us?” she murmured, when the comparative sanctuary of the drawing-room had been reached. “I see that I have interrupted you,” she added, glancing at the flowers strewn upon the floor. A moment later she inquired, “Was some one sitting with you?” noticing a handkerchief that Cassandra had dropped in her flight.
“Cassandra was helping me to put the flowers in water,” said Katharine, and she spoke so firmly and clearly that Mrs. Milvain glanced nervously at the main door and then at the curtain which divided the little room with the relics from the drawing-room.
“Ah, Cassandra is still with you,” she remarked. “And did William send you those lovely flowers?”
Katharine sat down opposite her aunt and said neither yes nor no. She looked past her, and it might have been thought that she was considering very critically the pattern of the curtains. Another advantage of the basement, from Mrs. Milvain’s point of view, was that it made it necessary to sit very close together, and the light was dim compared with that which now poured through three windows upon Katharine and the basket of flowers, and gave even the slight angular figure of Mrs. Milvain herself a halo of gold.
“They’re from Stogdon House,” said Katharine abruptly, with a little jerk of her head.
Mrs. Milvain felt that it would be easier to tell her niece what she wished to say if they were actually in physical contact, for the spiritual distance between them was formidable. Katharine, however, made no overtures, and Mrs. Milvain, who was possessed of rash but heroic courage, plunged without preface:
“People are talking about you, Katharine. That is why I have come this morning. You forgive me for saying what I’d much rather not say? What I say is only for your own sake, my child.”
“There’s nothing to forgive yet, Aunt Celia,” said Katharine, with apparent good humor.
“People are saying that William goes everywhere with you and Cassandra, and that he is always paying her attentions. At the Markhams’ dance he sat out five dances with her. At the Zoo they were seen alone together. They left together. They never came back here till seven in the evening. But that is not all. They say his manner is very marked—he is quite different when she is there.”
Mrs. Milvain, whose words had run themselves together, and whose voice had raised its tone almost to one of protest, here ceased, and looked intently at Katharine, as if to judge the effect of her communication. A slight rigidity had passed over Katharine’s face. Her lips were pressed together; her eyes were contracted, and they were still fixed upon the curtain. These superficial changes covered an extreme inner loathing such as might follow the display of some hideous or indecent spectacle. The indecent spectacle was her own action beheld for the first time from the outside; her aunt’s words made her realize how infinitely repulsive the body of life is without its soul.
“Well?” she said at length.
Mrs. Milvain made a gesture as if to bring her closer, but it was not returned.
“We all know how good you are—how unselfish—how you sacrifice yourself to others. But you’ve been too unselfish, Katharine. You have made Cassandra happy, and she has taken advantage of your goodness.”
“I don’t understand, Aunt Celia,” said Katharine. “What has Cassandra done?”
“Cassandra has behaved in a way that I could not have thought possible,” said Mrs. Milvain warmly. “She has been utterly selfish—utterly heartless. I must speak to her before I go.”
“I don’t understand,” Katharine persisted.
Mrs. Milvain looked at her. Was it possible that Katharine really doubted? That there was something that Mrs. Milvain herself did not understand? She braced herself, and pronounced the tremendous words:
“Cassandra has stolen William’s love.”
Still the words seemed to have curiously little effect.
“Do you mean,” said Katharine, “that he has fallen in love with her?”
“There are ways of MAKING men fall in love with one, Katharine.”
Katharine remained silent. The silence alarmed Mrs. Milvain, and she began hurriedly:
“Nothing would have made me say these things but your own good. I have not wished to interfere; I have not wished to give you pain. I am a useless old woman. I have no children of my own. I only want to see you happy, Katharine.”
Again she stretched forth her arms, but they remained empty.
“You are not going to say these things to Cassandra,” said Katharine suddenly. “You’ve said them to me; that’s enough.”
Katharine spoke so low and with such restraint that Mrs. Milvain had to strain to catch her words, and when she heard them she was dazed by them.
“I’ve made you angry! I knew I should!” she exclaimed. She quivered, and a kind of sob shook her; but even to have made Katharine angry was some relief, and allowed her to feel some of the agreeable sensations of martyrdom.
“Yes,” said Katharine, standing up, “I’m so angry that I don’t want to say anything more. I think you’d better go, Aunt Celia. We don’t understand each other.”
At these words Mrs. Milvain looked for a moment terribly apprehensive; she glanced at her niece’s face, but read no pity there, whereupon she folded her hands upon a black velvet bag which she carried in an attitude that was almost one of prayer. Whatever divinity she prayed to, if pray she did, at any rate she recovered her dignity in a singular way and faced her niece.
“Married love,” she said slowly and with emphasis upon every word, “is the most sacred of all loves. The love of husband and wife is the most holy we know. That is the lesson Mamma’s children learnt from her; that is what they can never forget. I have tried to speak as she would have wished her daughter to speak. You are her grandchild.”
Katharine seemed to judge this defence upon its merits, and then to convict it of falsity.
“I don’t see that there is any excuse for your behavior,” she said.
At these words Mrs. Milvain rose and stood for a moment beside her niece. She had never met with such treatment before, and she did not know with what weapons to break down the terrible wall of resistance offered her by one who, by virtue of youth and beauty and sex, should have been all tears and supplications. But Mrs. Milvain herself was obstinate; upon a matter of this kind she could not admit that she was either beaten or mistaken. She beheld herself the champion of married love in its purity and supremacy; what her niece stood for she was quite unable to say, but she was filled with the gravest suspicions. The old woman and the young woman stood side by side in unbroken silence. Mrs. Milvain could not make up her mind to withdraw while her principles trembled in the balance and her curiosity remained unappeased. She ransacked her mind for some question that should force Katharine to enlighten her, but the supply was limited, the choice difficult, and while she hesitated the door opened and William Rodney came in. He carried in his hand an enormous and splendid bunch of white and purple flowers, and, either not seeing Mrs. Milvain, or disregarding her, he advanced straight to Katharine, and presented the flowers with the words:
“These are for you, Katharine.”
Katharine took them with a glance that Mrs. Milvain did not fail to intercept. But with all her experience, she did not know what to make of it. She watched anxiously for further illumination. William greeted her without obvious sign of guilt, and, explaining that he had a holiday, both he and Katharine seemed to take it for granted that his holiday should be celebrated with flowers and spent in Cheyne Walk. A pause followed; that, too, was natural; and Mrs. Milvain began to feel that she laid herself open to a charge of selfishness if she stayed. The mere presence of a young man had altered her disposition curiously, and filled her with a desire for a scene which should end in an emotional forgiveness. She would have given much to clasp both nephew and niece in her arms. But she could not flatter herself that any hope of the customary exaltation remained.
“I must go,” she said, and she was conscious of an extreme flatness of spirit.
Neither of them said anything to stop her. William politely escorted her downstairs, and somehow, amongst her protests and embarrassments, Mrs. Milvain forgot to say good-bye to Katharine. She departed, murmuring words about masses of flowers and a drawing-room always beautiful even in the depths of winter.
William came back to Katharine; he found her standing where he had left her.
“I’ve come to be forgiven,” he said. “Our quarrel was perfectly hateful to me. I’ve not slept all night. You’re not angry with me, are you, Katharine?”
She could not bring herself to answer him until she had rid her mind of the impression that her aunt had made on her. It seemed to her that the very flowers were contaminated, and Cassandra’s pocket-handkerchief, for Mrs. Milvain had used them for evidence in her investigations.
“She’s been spying upon us,” she said, “following us about London, overhearing what people are saying—”
“Mrs. Milvain?” Rodney exclaimed. “What has she told you?”
His air of open confidence entirely vanished.
“Oh, people are saying that you’re in love with Cassandra, and that you don’t care for me.”
“They have seen us?” he asked.
“Everything we’ve done for a fortnight has been seen.”
“I told you that would happen!” he exclaimed.
He walked to the window in evident perturbation. Katharine was too indignant to attend to him. She was swept away by the force of her own anger. Clasping Rodney’s flowers, she stood upright and motionless.
Rodney turned away from the window.
“It’s all been a mistake,” he said. “I blame myself for it. I should have known better. I let you persuade me in a moment of madness. I beg you to forget my insanity, Katharine.”
“She wished even to persecute Cassandra!” Katharine burst out, not listening to him. “She threatened to speak to her. She’s capable of it—she’s capable of anything!”
“Mrs. Milvain is not tactful, I know, but you exaggerate, Katharine. People are talking about us. She was right to tell us. It only confirms my own feeling—the position is monstrous.”
At length Katharine realized some part of what he meant.
“You don’t mean that this influences you, William?” she asked in amazement.
“It does,” he said, flushing. “It’s intensely disagreeable to me. I can’t endure that people should gossip about us. And then there’s your cousin—Cassandra—” He paused in embarrassment.
“I came here this morning, Katharine,” he resumed, with a change of voice, “to ask you to forget my folly, my bad temper, my inconceivable behavior. I came, Katharine, to ask whether we can’t return to the position we were in before this—this season of lunacy. Will you take me back, Katharine, once more and for ever?”
No doubt her beauty, intensified by emotion and enhanced by the flowers of bright color and strange shape which she carried wrought upon Rodney, and had its share in bestowing upon her the old romance. But a less noble passion worked in him, too; he was inflamed by jealousy. His tentative offer of affection had been rudely and, as he thought, completely repulsed by Cassandra on the preceding day. Denham’s confession was in his mind. And ultimately, Katharine’s dominion over him was of the sort that the fevers of the night cannot exorcise.
“I was as much to blame as you were yesterday,” she said gently, disregarding his question. “I confess, William, the sight of you and Cassandra together made me jealous, and I couldn’t control myself. I laughed at you, I know.”
“You jealous!” William exclaimed. “I assure you, Katharine, you’ve not the slightest reason to be jealous. Cassandra dislikes me, so far as she feels about me at all. I was foolish enough to try to explain the nature of our relationship. I couldn’t resist telling her what I supposed myself to feel for her. She refused to listen, very rightly. But she left me in no doubt of her scorn.”
Katharine hesitated. She was confused, agitated, physically tired, and had already to reckon with the violent feeling of dislike aroused by her aunt which still vibrated through all the rest of her feelings. She sank into a chair and dropped her flowers upon her lap.
“She charmed me,” Rodney continued. “I thought I loved her. But that’s a thing of the past. It’s all over, Katharine. It was a dream—an hallucination. We were both equally to blame, but no harm’s done if you believe how truly I care for you. Say you believe me!”
He stood over her, as if in readiness to seize the first sign of her assent. Precisely at that moment, owing, perhaps, to her vicissitudes of feeling, all sense of love left her, as in a moment a mist lifts from the earth. And when the mist departed a skeleton world and blankness alone remained—a terrible prospect for the eyes of the living to behold. He saw the look of terror in her face, and without understanding its origin, took her hand in his. With the sense of companionship returned a desire, like that of a child for shelter, to accept what he had to offer her—and at that moment it seemed that he offered her the only thing that could make it tolerable to live. She let him press his lips to her cheek, and leant her head upon his arm. It was the moment of his triumph. It was the only moment in which she belonged to him and was dependent upon his protection.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he murmured, “you accept me, Katharine. You love me.”
For a moment she remained silent. He then heard her murmur:
“Cassandra loves you more than I do.”
“Cassandra?” he whispered.
“She loves you,” Katharine repeated. She raised herself and repeated the sentence yet a third time. “She loves you.”
William slowly raised himself. He believed instinctively what Katharine said, but what it meant to him he was unable to understand. Could Cassandra love him? Could she have told Katharine that she loved him? The desire to know the truth of this was urgent, unknown though the consequences might be. The thrill of excitement associated with the thought of Cassandra once more took possession of him. No longer was it the excitement of anticipation and ignorance; it was the excitement of something greater than a possibility, for now he knew her and had measure of the sympathy between them. But who could give him certainty? Could Katharine, Katharine who had lately lain in his arms, Katharine herself the most admired of women? He looked at her, with doubt, and with anxiety, but said nothing.
“Yes, yes,” she said, interpreting his wish for assurance, “it’s true. I know what she feels for you.”
“She loves me?”
“Ah, but who knows what I feel? How can I be sure of my feeling myself? Ten minutes ago I asked you to marry me. I still wish it—I don’t know what I wish—”
He clenched his hands and turned away. He suddenly faced her and demanded: “Tell me what you feel for Denham.”
“For Ralph Denham?” she asked. “Yes!” she exclaimed, as if she had found the answer to some momentarily perplexing question. “You’re jealous of me, William; but you’re not in love with me. I’m jealous of you. Therefore, for both our sakes, I say, speak to Cassandra at once.”
He tried to compose himself. He walked up and down the room; he paused at the window and surveyed the flowers strewn upon the floor. Meanwhile his desire to have Katharine’s assurance confirmed became so insistent that he could no longer deny the overmastering strength of his feeling for Cassandra.
“You’re right,” he exclaimed, coming to a standstill and rapping his knuckles sharply upon a small table carrying one slender vase. “I love Cassandra.”
As he said this, the curtains hanging at the door of the little room parted, and Cassandra herself stepped forth.
“I have overheard every word!” she exclaimed.
A pause succeeded this announcement. Rodney made a step forward and said:
“Then you know what I wish to ask you. Give me your answer—”
She put her hands before her face; she turned away and seemed to shrink from both of them.
“What Katharine said,” she murmured. “But,” she added, raising her head with a look of fear from the kiss with which he greeted her admission, “how frightfully difficult it all is! Our feelings, I mean—yours and mine and Katharine’s. Katharine, tell me, are we doing right?”
“Right—of course we’re doing right,” William answered her, “if, after what you’ve heard, you can marry a man of such incomprehensible confusion, such deplorable—”
“Don’t, William,” Katharine interposed; “Cassandra has heard us; she can judge what we are; she knows better than we could tell her.”
But, still holding William’s hand, questions and desires welled up in Cassandra’s heart. Had she done wrong in listening? Why did Aunt Celia blame her? Did Katharine think her right? Above all, did William really love her, for ever and ever, better than any one?
“I must be first with him, Katharine!” she exclaimed. “I can’t share him even with you.”
“I shall never ask that,” said Katharine. She moved a little away from where they sat and began half-consciously sorting her flowers.
“But you’ve shared with me,” Cassandra said. “Why can’t I share with you? Why am I so mean? I know why it is,” she added. “We understand each other, William and I. You’ve never understood each other. You’re too different.”
“I’ve never admired anybody more,” William interposed.
“It’s not that”—Cassandra tried to enlighten him—“it’s understanding.”
“Have I never understood you, Katharine? Have I been very selfish?”
“Yes,” Cassandra interposed. “You’ve asked her for sympathy, and she’s not sympathetic; you’ve wanted her to be practical, and she’s not practical. You’ve been selfish; you’ve been exacting—and so has Katharine—but it wasn’t anybody’s fault.”
Katharine had listened to this attempt at analysis with keen attention. Cassandra’s words seemed to rub the old blurred image of life and freshen it so marvelously that it looked new again. She turned to William.
“It’s quite true,” she said. “It was nobody’s fault.”
“There are many things that he’ll always come to you for,” Cassandra continued, still reading from her invisible book. “I accept that, Katharine. I shall never dispute it. I want to be generous as you’ve been generous. But being in love makes it more difficult for me.”
They were silent. At length William broke the silence.
“One thing I beg of you both,” he said, and the old nervousness of manner returned as he glanced at Katharine. “We will never discuss these matters again. It’s not that I’m timid and conventional, as you think, Katharine. It’s that it spoils things to discuss them; it unsettles people’s minds; and now we’re all so happy—”
Cassandra ratified this conclusion so far as she was concerned, and William, after receiving the exquisite pleasure of her glance, with its absolute affection and trust, looked anxiously at Katharine.
“Yes, I’m happy,” she assured him. “And I agree. We will never talk about it again.”
“Oh, Katharine, Katharine!” Cassandra cried, holding out her arms while the tears ran down her cheeks.