Although the old coaches, with their gay panels and the guard’s horn, and the humors of the box and the vicissitudes of the road, have long moldered into dust so far as they were matter, and are preserved in the printed pages of our novelists so far as they partook of the spirit, a journey to London by express train can still be a very pleasant and romantic adventure. Cassandra Otway, at the age of twenty-two, could imagine few things more pleasant. Satiated with months of green fields as she was, the first row of artisans’ villas on the outskirts of London seemed to have something serious about it, which positively increased the importance of every person in the railway carriage, and even, to her impressionable mind, quickened the speed of the train and gave a note of stern authority to the shriek of the engine-whistle. They were bound for London; they must have precedence of all traffic not similarly destined. A different demeanor was necessary directly one stepped out upon Liverpool Street platform, and became one of those preoccupied and hasty citizens for whose needs innumerable taxi-cabs, motor-omnibuses, and underground railways were in waiting. She did her best to look dignified and preoccupied too, but as the cab carried her away, with a determination which alarmed her a little, she became more and more forgetful of her station as a citizen of London, and turned her head from one window to another, picking up eagerly a building on this side or a street scene on that to feed her intense curiosity. And yet, while the drive lasted no one was real, nothing was ordinary; the crowds, the Government buildings, the tide of men and women washing the base of the great glass windows, were all generalized, and affected her as if she saw them on the stage.
All these feelings were sustained and partly inspired by the fact that her journey took her straight to the center of her most romantic world. A thousand times in the midst of her pastoral landscape her thoughts took this precise road, were admitted to the house in Chelsea, and went directly upstairs to Katharine’s room, where, invisible themselves, they had the better chance of feasting upon the privacy of the room’s adorable and mysterious mistress. Cassandra adored her cousin; the adoration might have been foolish, but was saved from that excess and lent an engaging charm by the volatile nature of Cassandra’s temperament. She had adored a great many things and people in the course of twenty-two years; she had been alternately the pride and the desperation of her teachers. She had worshipped architecture and music, natural history and humanity, literature and art, but always at the height of her enthusiasm, which was accompanied by a brilliant degree of accomplishment, she changed her mind and bought, surreptitiously, another grammar. The terrible results which governesses had predicted from such mental dissipation were certainly apparent now that Cassandra was twenty-two, and had never passed an examination, and daily showed herself less and less capable of passing one. The more serious prediction that she could never possibly earn her living was also verified. But from all these short strands of different accomplishments Cassandra wove for herself an attitude, a cast of mind, which, if useless, was found by some people to have the not despicable virtues of vivacity and freshness. Katharine, for example, thought her a most charming companion. The cousins seemed to assemble between them a great range of qualities which are never found united in one person and seldom in half a dozen people. Where Katharine was simple, Cassandra was complex; where Katharine was solid and direct, Cassandra was vague and evasive. In short, they represented very well the manly and the womanly sides of the feminine nature, and, for foundation, there was the profound unity of common blood between them. If Cassandra adored Katharine she was incapable of adoring any one without refreshing her spirit with frequent draughts of raillery and criticism, and Katharine enjoyed her laughter at least as much as her respect.
Respect was certainly uppermost in Cassandra’s mind at the present moment. Katharine’s engagement had appealed to her imagination as the first engagement in a circle of contemporaries is apt to appeal to the imaginations of the others; it was solemn, beautiful, and mysterious; it gave both parties the important air of those who have been initiated into some rite which is still concealed from the rest of the group. For Katharine’s sake Cassandra thought William a most distinguished and interesting character, and welcomed first his conversation and then his manuscript as the marks of a friendship which it flattered and delighted her to inspire.
Katharine was still out when she arrived at Cheyne Walk. After greeting her uncle and aunt and receiving, as usual, a present of two sovereigns for “cab fares and dissipation” from Uncle Trevor, whose favorite niece she was, she changed her dress and wandered into Katharine’s room to await her. What a great looking-glass Katharine had, she thought, and how mature all the arrangements upon the dressing-table were compared to what she was used to at home. Glancing round, she thought that the bills stuck upon a skewer and stood for ornament upon the mantelpiece were astonishingly like Katharine, There wasn’t a photograph of William anywhere to be seen. The room, with its combination of luxury and bareness, its silk dressing-gowns and crimson slippers, its shabby carpet and bare walls, had a powerful air of Katharine herself; she stood in the middle of the room and enjoyed the sensation; and then, with a desire to finger what her cousin was in the habit of fingering, Cassandra began to take down the books which stood in a row upon the shelf above the bed. In most houses this shelf is the ledge upon which the last relics of religious belief lodge themselves as if, late at night, in the heart of privacy, people, skeptical by day, find solace in sipping one draught of the old charm for such sorrows or perplexities as may steal from their hiding-places in the dark. But there was no hymn-book here. By their battered covers and enigmatical contents, Cassandra judged them to be old school-books belonging to Uncle Trevor, and piously, though eccentrically, preserved by his daughter. There was no end, she thought, to the unexpectedness of Katharine. She had once had a passion for geometry herself, and, curled upon Katharine’s quilt, she became absorbed in trying to remember how far she had forgotten what she once knew. Katharine, coming in a little later, found her deep in this characteristic pursuit.
“My dear,” Cassandra exclaimed, shaking the book at her cousin, “my whole life’s changed from this moment! I must write the man’s name down at once, or I shall forget—”
Whose name, what book, which life was changed Katharine proceeded to ascertain. She began to lay aside her clothes hurriedly, for she was very late.
“May I sit and watch you?” Cassandra asked, shutting up her book. “I got ready on purpose.”
“Oh, you’re ready, are you?” said Katharine, half turning in the midst of her operations, and looking at Cassandra, who sat, clasping her knees, on the edge of the bed.
“There are people dining here,” she said, taking in the effect of Cassandra from a new point of view. After an interval, the distinction, the irregular charm, of the small face with its long tapering nose and its bright oval eyes were very notable. The hair rose up off the forehead rather stiffly, and, given a more careful treatment by hairdressers and dressmakers, the light angular figure might possess a likeness to a French lady of distinction in the eighteenth century.
“Who’s coming to dinner?” Cassandra asked, anticipating further possibilities of rapture.
“There’s William, and, I believe, Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Aubrey.”
“I’m so glad William is coming. Did he tell you that he sent me his manuscript? I think it’s wonderful—I think he’s almost good enough for you, Katharine.”
“You shall sit next to him and tell him what you think of him.”
“I shan’t dare do that,” Cassandra asserted.
“Why? You’re not afraid of him, are you?”
“A little—because he’s connected with you.”
“But then, with your well-known fidelity, considering that you’re staying here at least a fortnight, you won’t have any illusions left about me by the time you go. I give you a week, Cassandra. I shall see my power fading day by day. Now it’s at the climax; but to-morrow it’ll have begun to fade. What am I to wear, I wonder? Find me a blue dress, Cassandra, over there in the long wardrobe.”
She spoke disconnectedly, handling brush and comb, and pulling out the little drawers in her dressing-table and leaving them open. Cassandra, sitting on the bed behind her, saw the reflection of her cousin’s face in the looking-glass. The face in the looking-glass was serious and intent, apparently occupied with other things besides the straightness of the parting which, however, was being driven as straight as a Roman road through the dark hair. Cassandra was impressed again by Katharine’s maturity; and, as she enveloped herself in the blue dress which filled almost the whole of the long looking-glass with blue light and made it the frame of a picture, holding not only the slightly moving effigy of the beautiful woman, but shapes and colors of objects reflected from the background, Cassandra thought that no sight had ever been quite so romantic. It was all in keeping with the room and the house, and the city round them; for her ears had not yet ceased to notice the hum of distant wheels.
They went downstairs rather late, in spite of Katharine’s extreme speed in getting ready. To Cassandra’s ears the buzz of voices inside the drawing-room was like the tuning up of the instruments of the orchestra. It seemed to her that there were numbers of people in the room, and that they were strangers, and that they were beautiful and dressed with the greatest distinction, although they proved to be mostly her relations, and the distinction of their clothing was confined, in the eyes of an impartial observer, to the white waistcoat which Rodney wore. But they all rose simultaneously, which was by itself impressive, and they all exclaimed, and shook hands, and she was introduced to Mr. Peyton, and the door sprang open, and dinner was announced, and they filed off, William Rodney offering her his slightly bent black arm, as she had secretly hoped he would. In short, had the scene been looked at only through her eyes, it must have been described as one of magical brilliancy. The pattern of the soup-plates, the stiff folds of the napkins, which rose by the side of each plate in the shape of arum lilies, the long sticks of bread tied with pink ribbon, the silver dishes and the sea-colored champagne glasses, with the flakes of gold congealed in their stems—all these details, together with a curiously pervasive smell of kid gloves, contributed to her exhilaration, which must be repressed, however, because she was grown up, and the world held no more for her to marvel at.
The world held no more for her to marvel at, it is true; but it held other people; and each other person possessed in Cassandra’s mind some fragment of what privately she called “reality.” It was a gift that they would impart if you asked them for it, and thus no dinner-party could possibly be dull, and little Mr. Peyton on her right and William Rodney on her left were in equal measure endowed with the quality which seemed to her so unmistakable and so precious that the way people neglected to demand it was a constant source of surprise to her. She scarcely knew, indeed, whether she was talking to Mr. Peyton or to William Rodney. But to one who, by degrees, assumed the shape of an elderly man with a mustache, she described how she had arrived in London that very afternoon, and how she had taken a cab and driven through the streets. Mr. Peyton, an editor of fifty years, bowed his bald head repeatedly, with apparent understanding. At least, he understood that she was very young and pretty, and saw that she was excited, though he could not gather at once from her words or remember from his own experience what there was to be excited about. “Were there any buds on the trees?” he asked. “Which line did she travel by?”
He was cut short in these amiable inquiries by her desire to know whether he was one of those who read, or one of those who look out of the window? Mr. Peyton was by no means sure which he did. He rather thought he did both. He was told that he had made a most dangerous confession. She could deduce his entire history from that one fact. He challenged her to proceed; and she proclaimed him a Liberal Member of Parliament.
William, nominally engaged in a desultory conversation with Aunt Eleanor, heard every word, and taking advantage of the fact that elderly ladies have little continuity of conversation, at least with those whom they esteem for their youth and their sex, he asserted his presence by a very nervous laugh.
Cassandra turned to him directly. She was enchanted to find that, instantly and with such ease, another of these fascinating beings was offering untold wealth for her extraction.
“There’s no doubt what YOU do in a railway carriage, William,” she said, making use in her pleasure of his first name. “You never ONCE look out of the window; you read ALL the time.”
“And what facts do you deduce from that?” Mr. Peyton asked.
“Oh, that he’s a poet, of course,” said Cassandra. “But I must confess that I knew that before, so it isn’t fair. I’ve got your manuscript with me,” she went on, disregarding Mr. Peyton in a shameless way. “I’ve got all sorts of things I want to ask you about it.”
William inclined his head and tried to conceal the pleasure that her remark gave him. But the pleasure was not unalloyed. However susceptible to flattery William might be, he would never tolerate it from people who showed a gross or emotional taste in literature, and if Cassandra erred even slightly from what he considered essential in this respect he would express his discomfort by flinging out his hands and wrinkling his forehead; he would find no pleasure in her flattery after that.
“First of all,” she proceeded, “I want to know why you chose to write a play?”
“Ah! You mean it’s not dramatic?”
“I mean that I don’t see what it would gain by being acted. But then does Shakespeare gain? Henry and I are always arguing about Shakespeare. I’m certain he’s wrong, but I can’t prove it because I’ve only seen Shakespeare acted once in Lincoln. But I’m quite positive,” she insisted, “that Shakespeare wrote for the stage.”
“You’re perfectly right,” Rodney exclaimed. “I was hoping you were on that side. Henry’s wrong—entirely wrong. Of course, I’ve failed, as all the moderns fail. Dear, dear, I wish I’d consulted you before.”
From this point they proceeded to go over, as far as memory served them, the different aspects of Rodney’s drama. She said nothing that jarred upon him, and untrained daring had the power to stimulate experience to such an extent that Rodney was frequently seen to hold his fork suspended before him, while he debated the first principles of the art. Mrs. Hilbery thought to herself that she had never seen him to such advantage; yes, he was somehow different; he reminded her of some one who was dead, some one who was distinguished—she had forgotten his name.
Cassandra’s voice rose high in its excitement.
“You’ve not read ‘The Idiot’!” she exclaimed.
“I’ve read ‘War and Peace’,” William replied, a little testily.
“‘WAR AND PEACE’!” she echoed, in a tone of derision.
“I confess I don’t understand the Russians.”
“Shake hands! Shake hands!” boomed Uncle Aubrey from across the table. “Neither do I. And I hazard the opinion that they don’t themselves.”
The old gentleman had ruled a large part of the Indian Empire, but he was in the habit of saying that he had rather have written the works of Dickens. The table now took possession of a subject much to its liking. Aunt Eleanor showed premonitory signs of pronouncing an opinion. Although she had blunted her taste upon some form of philanthropy for twenty-five years, she had a fine natural instinct for an upstart or a pretender, and knew to a hairbreadth what literature should be and what it should not be. She was born to the knowledge, and scarcely thought it a matter to be proud of.
“Insanity is not a fit subject for fiction,” she announced positively.
“There’s the well-known case of Hamlet,” Mr. Hilbery interposed, in his leisurely, half-humorous tones.
“Ah, but poetry’s different, Trevor,” said Aunt Eleanor, as if she had special authority from Shakespeare to say so. “Different altogether. And I’ve never thought, for my part, that Hamlet was as mad as they make out. What is your opinion, Mr. Peyton?” For, as there was a minister of literature present in the person of the editor of an esteemed review, she deferred to him.
Mr. Peyton leant a little back in his chair, and, putting his head rather on one side, observed that that was a question that he had never been able to answer entirely to his satisfaction. There was much to be said on both sides, but as he considered upon which side he should say it, Mrs. Hilbery broke in upon his judicious meditations.
“Lovely, lovely Ophelia!” she exclaimed. “What a wonderful power it is—poetry! I wake up in the morning all bedraggled; there’s a yellow fog outside; little Emily turns on the electric light when she brings me my tea, and says, ‘Oh, ma’am, the water’s frozen in the cistern, and cook’s cut her finger to the bone.’ And then I open a little green book, and the birds are singing, the stars shining, the flowers twinkling—” She looked about her as if these presences had suddenly manifested themselves round her dining-room table.
“Has the cook cut her finger badly?” Aunt Eleanor demanded, addressing herself naturally to Katharine.
“Oh, the cook’s finger is only my way of putting it,” said Mrs. Hilbery. “But if she had cut her arm off, Katharine would have sewn it on again,” she remarked, with an affectionate glance at her daughter, who looked, she thought, a little sad. “But what horrid, horrid thoughts,” she wound up, laying down her napkin and pushing her chair back. “Come, let us find something more cheerful to talk about upstairs.”
Upstairs in the drawing-room Cassandra found fresh sources of pleasure, first in the distinguished and expectant look of the room, and then in the chance of exercising her divining-rod upon a new assortment of human beings. But the low tones of the women, their meditative silences, the beauty which, to her at least, shone even from black satin and the knobs of amber which encircled elderly necks, changed her wish to chatter to a more subdued desire merely to watch and to whisper. She entered with delight into an atmosphere in which private matters were being interchanged freely, almost in monosyllables, by the older women who now accepted her as one of themselves. Her expression became very gentle and sympathetic, as if she, too, were full of solicitude for the world which was somehow being cared for, managed and deprecated by Aunt Maggie and Aunt Eleanor. After a time she perceived that Katharine was outside the community in some way, and, suddenly, she threw aside her wisdom and gentleness and concern and began to laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” Katharine asked.
A joke so foolish and unfilial wasn’t worth explaining.
“It was nothing—ridiculous—in the worst of taste, but still, if you half shut your eyes and looked—” Katharine half shut her eyes and looked, but she looked in the wrong direction, and Cassandra laughed more than ever, and was still laughing and doing her best to explain in a whisper that Aunt Eleanor, through half-shut eyes, was like the parrot in the cage at Stogdon House, when the gentlemen came in and Rodney walked straight up to them and wanted to know what they were laughing at.
“I utterly refuse to tell you!” Cassandra replied, standing up straight, clasping her hands in front of her, and facing him. Her mockery was delicious to him. He had not even for a second the fear that she had been laughing at him. She was laughing because life was so adorable, so enchanting.
“Ah, but you’re cruel to make me feel the barbarity of my sex,” he replied, drawing his feet together and pressing his finger-tips upon an imaginary opera-hat or malacca cane. “We’ve been discussing all sorts of dull things, and now I shall never know what I want to know more than anything in the world.”
“You don’t deceive us for a minute!” she cried. “Not for a second. We both know that you’ve been enjoying yourself immensely. Hasn’t he, Katharine?”
“No,” she replied, “I think he’s speaking the truth. He doesn’t care much for politics.”
Her words, though spoken simply, produced a curious change in the light, sparkling atmosphere. William at once lost his look of animation and said seriously:
“I detest politics.”
“I don’t think any man has the right to say that,” said Cassandra, almost severely.
“I agree. I mean that I detest politicians,” he corrected himself quickly.
“You see, I believe Cassandra is what they call a Feminist,” Katharine went on. “Or rather, she was a Feminist six months ago, but it’s no good supposing that she is now what she was then. That is one of her greatest charms in my eyes. One never can tell.” She smiled at her as an elder sister might smile.
“Katharine, you make one feel so horribly small!” Cassandra exclaimed.
“No, no, that’s not what she means,” Rodney interposed. “I quite agree that women have an immense advantage over us there. One misses a lot by attempting to know things thoroughly.”
“He knows Greek thoroughly,” said Katharine. “But then he also knows a good deal about painting, and a certain amount about music. He’s very cultivated—perhaps the most cultivated person I know.”
“And poetry,” Cassandra added.
“Yes, I was forgetting his play,” Katharine remarked, and turning her head as though she saw something that needed her attention in a far corner of the room, she left them.
For a moment they stood silent, after what seemed a deliberate introduction to each other, and Cassandra watched her crossing the room.
“Henry,” she said next moment, “would say that a stage ought to be no bigger than this drawing-room. He wants there to be singing and dancing as well as acting—only all the opposite of Wagner—you understand?”
They sat down, and Katharine, turning when she reached the window, saw William with his hand raised in gesticulation and his mouth open, as if ready to speak the moment Cassandra ceased.
Katharine’s duty, whether it was to pull a curtain or move a chair, was either forgotten or discharged, but she continued to stand by the window without doing anything. The elderly people were all grouped together round the fire. They seemed an independent, middle-aged community busy with its own concerns. They were telling stories very well and listening to them very graciously. But for her there was no obvious employment.
“If anybody says anything, I shall say that I’m looking at the river,” she thought, for in her slavery to her family traditions, she was ready to pay for her transgression with some plausible falsehood. She pushed aside the blind and looked at the river. But it was a dark night and the water was barely visible. Cabs were passing, and couples were loitering slowly along the road, keeping as close to the railings as possible, though the trees had as yet no leaves to cast shadow upon their embraces. Katharine, thus withdrawn, felt her loneliness. The evening had been one of pain, offering her, minute after minute, plainer proof that things would fall out as she had foreseen. She had faced tones, gestures, glances; she knew, with her back to them, that William, even now, was plunging deeper and deeper into the delight of unexpected understanding with Cassandra. He had almost told her that he was finding it infinitely better than he could have believed. She looked out of the window, sternly determined to forget private misfortunes, to forget herself, to forget individual lives. With her eyes upon the dark sky, voices reached her from the room in which she was standing. She heard them as if they came from people in another world, a world antecedent to her world, a world that was the prelude, the antechamber to reality; it was as if, lately dead, she heard the living talking. The dream nature of our life had never been more apparent to her, never had life been more certainly an affair of four walls, whose objects existed only within the range of lights and fires, beyond which lay nothing, or nothing more than darkness. She seemed physically to have stepped beyond the region where the light of illusion still makes it desirable to possess, to love, to struggle. And yet her melancholy brought her no serenity. She still heard the voices within the room. She was still tormented by desires. She wished to be beyond their range. She wished inconsistently enough that she could find herself driving rapidly through the streets; she was even anxious to be with some one who, after a moment’s groping, took a definite shape and solidified into the person of Mary Datchet. She drew the curtains so that the draperies met in deep folds in the middle of the window.
“Ah, there she is,” said Mr. Hilbery, who was standing swaying affably from side to side, with his back to the fire. “Come here, Katharine. I couldn’t see where you’d got to—our children,” he observed parenthetically, “have their uses—I want you to go to my study, Katharine; go to the third shelf on the right-hand side of the door; take down ‘Trelawny’s Recollections of Shelley’; bring it to me. Then, Peyton, you will have to admit to the assembled company that you have been mistaken.”
“‘Trelawny’s Recollections of Shelley.’ The third shelf on the right of the door,” Katharine repeated. After all, one does not check children in their play, or rouse sleepers from their dreams. She passed William and Cassandra on her way to the door.
“Stop, Katharine,” said William, speaking almost as if he were conscious of her against his will. “Let me go.” He rose, after a second’s hesitation, and she understood that it cost him an effort. She knelt one knee upon the sofa where Cassandra sat, looking down at her cousin’s face, which still moved with the speed of what she had been saying.
“Are you—happy?” she asked.
“Oh, my dear!” Cassandra exclaimed, as if no further words were needed. “Of course, we disagree about every subject under the sun,” she exclaimed, “but I think he’s the cleverest man I’ve ever met—and you’re the most beautiful woman,” she added, looking at Katharine, and as she looked her face lost its animation and became almost melancholy in sympathy with Katharine’s melancholy, which seemed to Cassandra the last refinement of her distinction.
“Ah, but it’s only ten o’clock,” said Katharine darkly.
“As late as that! Well—?” She did not understand.
“At twelve my horses turn into rats and off I go. The illusion fades. But I accept my fate. I make hay while the sun shines.” Cassandra looked at her with a puzzled expression.
“Here’s Katharine talking about rats, and hay, and all sorts of odd things,” she said, as William returned to them. He had been quick. “Can you make her out?”
Katharine perceived from his little frown and hesitation that he did not find that particular problem to his taste at present. She stood upright at once and said in a different tone:
“I really am off, though. I wish you’d explain if they say anything, William. I shan’t be late, but I’ve got to see some one.”
“At this time of night?” Cassandra exclaimed.
“Whom have you got to see?” William demanded.
“A friend,” she remarked, half turning her head towards him. She knew that he wished her to stay, not, indeed, with them, but in their neighborhood, in case of need.
“Katharine has a great many friends,” said William rather lamely, sitting down once more, as Katharine left the room.
She was soon driving quickly, as she had wished to drive, through the lamp-lit streets. She liked both light and speed, and the sense of being out of doors alone, and the knowledge that she would reach Mary in her high, lonely room at the end of the drive. She climbed the stone steps quickly, remarking the queer look of her blue silk skirt and blue shoes upon the stone, dusty with the boots of the day, under the light of an occasional jet of flickering gas.
The door was opened in a second by Mary herself, whose face showed not only surprise at the sight of her visitor, but some degree of embarrassment. She greeted her cordially, and, as there was no time for explanations, Katharine walked straight into the sitting-room, and found herself in the presence of a young man who was lying back in a chair and holding a sheet of paper in his hand, at which he was looking as if he expected to go on immediately with what he was in the middle of saying to Mary Datchet. The apparition of an unknown lady in full evening dress seemed to disturb him. He took his pipe from his mouth, rose stiffly, and sat down again with a jerk.
“Have you been dining out?” Mary asked.
“Are you working?” Katharine inquired simultaneously.
The young man shook his head, as if he disowned his share in the question with some irritation.
“Well, not exactly,” Mary replied. “Mr. Basnett had brought some papers to show me. We were going through them, but we’d almost done.... Tell us about your party.”
Mary had a ruffled appearance, as if she had been running her fingers through her hair in the course of her conversation; she was dressed more or less like a Russian peasant girl. She sat down again in a chair which looked as if it had been her seat for some hours; the saucer which stood upon the arm contained the ashes of many cigarettes. Mr. Basnett, a very young man with a fresh complexion and a high forehead from which the hair was combed straight back, was one of that group of “very able young men” suspected by Mr. Clacton, justly as it turned out, of an influence upon Mary Datchet. He had come down from one of the Universities not long ago, and was now charged with the reformation of society. In connection with the rest of the group of very able young men he had drawn up a scheme for the education of labor, for the amalgamation of the middle class and the working class, and for a joint assault of the two bodies, combined in the Society for the Education of Democracy, upon Capital. The scheme had already reached the stage in which it was permissible to hire an office and engage a secretary, and he had been deputed to expound the scheme to Mary, and make her an offer of the Secretaryship, to which, as a matter of principle, a small salary was attached. Since seven o’clock that evening he had been reading out loud the document in which the faith of the new reformers was expounded, but the reading was so frequently interrupted by discussion, and it was so often necessary to inform Mary “in strictest confidence” of the private characters and evil designs of certain individuals and societies that they were still only half-way through the manuscript. Neither of them realized that the talk had already lasted three hours. In their absorption they had forgotten even to feed the fire, and yet both Mr. Basnett in his exposition, and Mary in her interrogation, carefully preserved a kind of formality calculated to check the desire of the human mind for irrelevant discussion. Her questions frequently began, “Am I to understand—” and his replies invariably represented the views of some one called “we.”
By this time Mary was almost persuaded that she, too, was included in the “we,” and agreed with Mr. Basnett in believing that “our” views, “our” society, “our” policy, stood for something quite definitely segregated from the main body of society in a circle of superior illumination.
The appearance of Katharine in this atmosphere was extremely incongruous, and had the effect of making Mary remember all sorts of things that she had been glad to forget.
“You’ve been dining out?” she asked again, looking, with a little smile, at the blue silk and the pearl-sewn shoes.
“No, at home. Are you starting something new?” Katharine hazarded, rather hesitatingly, looking at the papers.
“We are,” Mr. Basnett replied. He said no more.
“I’m thinking of leaving our friends in Russell Square,” Mary explained.
“I see. And then you will do something else.”
“Well, I’m afraid I like working,” said Mary.
“Afraid,” said Mr. Basnett, conveying the impression that, in his opinion, no sensible person could be afraid of liking to work.
“Yes,” said Katharine, as if he had stated this opinion aloud. “I should like to start something—something off one’s own bat—that’s what I should like.”
“Yes, that’s the fun,” said Mr. Basnett, looking at her for the first time rather keenly, and refilling his pipe.
“But you can’t limit work—that’s what I mean,” said Mary. “I mean there are other sorts of work. No one works harder than a woman with little children.”
“Quite so,” said Mr. Basnett. “It’s precisely the women with babies we want to get hold of.” He glanced at his document, rolled it into a cylinder between his fingers, and gazed into the fire. Katharine felt that in this company anything that one said would be judged upon its merits; one had only to say what one thought, rather barely and tersely, with a curious assumption that the number of things that could properly be thought about was strictly limited. And Mr. Basnett was only stiff upon the surface; there was an intelligence in his face which attracted her intelligence.
“When will the public know?” she asked.
“What d’you mean—about us?” Mr. Basnett asked, with a little smile.
“That depends upon many things,” said Mary. The conspirators looked pleased, as if Katharine’s question, with the belief in their existence which it implied, had a warming effect upon them.
“In starting a society such as we wish to start (we can’t say any more at present),” Mr. Basnett began, with a little jerk of his head, “there are two things to remember—the Press and the public. Other societies, which shall be nameless, have gone under because they’ve appealed only to cranks. If you don’t want a mutual admiration society, which dies as soon as you’ve all discovered each other’s faults, you must nobble the Press. You must appeal to the public.”
“That’s the difficulty,” said Mary thoughtfully.
“That’s where she comes in,” said Mr. Basnett, jerking his head in Mary’s direction. “She’s the only one of us who’s a capitalist. She can make a whole-time job of it. I’m tied to an office; I can only give my spare time. Are you, by any chance, on the look-out for a job?” he asked Katharine, with a queer mixture of distrust and deference.
“Marriage is her job at present,” Mary replied for her.
“Oh, I see,” said Mr. Basnett. He made allowances for that; he and his friends had faced the question of sex, along with all others, and assigned it an honorable place in their scheme of life. Katharine felt this beneath the roughness of his manner; and a world entrusted to the guardianship of Mary Datchet and Mr. Basnett seemed to her a good world, although not a romantic or beautiful place or, to put it figuratively, a place where any line of blue mist softly linked tree to tree upon the horizon. For a moment she thought she saw in his face, bent now over the fire, the features of that original man whom we still recall every now and then, although we know only the clerk, barrister, Governmental official, or workingman variety of him. Not that Mr. Basnett, giving his days to commerce and his spare time to social reform, would long carry about him any trace of his possibilities of completeness; but, for the moment, in his youth and ardor, still speculative, still uncramped, one might imagine him the citizen of a nobler state than ours. Katharine turned over her small stock of information, and wondered what their society might be going to attempt. Then she remembered that she was hindering their business, and rose, still thinking of this society, and thus thinking, she said to Mr. Basnett:
“Well, you’ll ask me to join when the time comes, I hope.”
He nodded, and took his pipe from his mouth, but, being unable to think of anything to say, he put it back again, although he would have been glad if she had stayed.
Against her wish, Mary insisted upon taking her downstairs, and then, as there was no cab to be seen, they stood in the street together, looking about them.
“Go back,” Katharine urged her, thinking of Mr. Basnett with his papers in his hand.
“You can’t wander about the streets alone in those clothes,” said Mary, but the desire to find a cab was not her true reason for standing beside Katharine for a minute or two. Unfortunately for her composure, Mr. Basnett and his papers seemed to her an incidental diversion of life’s serious purpose compared with some tremendous fact which manifested itself as she stood alone with Katharine. It may have been their common womanhood.
“Have you seen Ralph?” she asked suddenly, without preface.
“Yes,” said Katharine directly, but she did not remember when or where she had seen him. It took her a moment or two to remember why Mary should ask her if she had seen Ralph.
“I believe I’m jealous,” said Mary.
“Nonsense, Mary,” said Katharine, rather distractedly, taking her arm and beginning to walk up the street in the direction of the main road. “Let me see; we went to Kew, and we agreed to be friends. Yes, that’s what happened.” Mary was silent, in the hope that Katharine would tell her more. But Katharine said nothing.
“It’s not a question of friendship,” Mary exclaimed, her anger rising, to her own surprise. “You know it’s not. How can it be? I’ve no right to interfere—” She stopped. “Only I’d rather Ralph wasn’t hurt,” she concluded.
“I think he seems able to take care of himself,” Katharine observed. Without either of them wishing it, a feeling of hostility had risen between them.
“Do you really think it’s worth it?” said Mary, after a pause.
“How can one tell?” Katharine asked.
“Have you ever cared for any one?” Mary demanded rashly and foolishly.
“I can’t wander about London discussing my feelings—Here’s a cab—no, there’s some one in it.”
“We don’t want to quarrel,” said Mary.
“Ought I to have told him that I wouldn’t be his friend?” Katharine asked. “Shall I tell him that? If so, what reason shall I give him?”
“Of course you can’t tell him that,” said Mary, controlling herself.
“I believe I shall, though,” said Katharine suddenly.
“I lost my temper, Katharine; I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
“The whole thing’s foolish,” said Katharine, peremptorily. “That’s what I say. It’s not worth it.” She spoke with unnecessary vehemence, but it was not directed against Mary Datchet. Their animosity had completely disappeared, and upon both of them a cloud of difficulty and darkness rested, obscuring the future, in which they had both to find a way.
“No, no, it’s not worth it,” Katharine repeated. “Suppose, as you say, it’s out of the question—this friendship; he falls in love with me. I don’t want that. Still,” she added, “I believe you exaggerate; love’s not everything; marriage itself is only one of the things—” They had reached the main thoroughfare, and stood looking at the omnibuses and passers-by, who seemed, for the moment, to illustrate what Katharine had said of the diversity of human interests. For both of them it had become one of those moments of extreme detachment, when it seems unnecessary ever again to shoulder the burden of happiness and self-assertive existence. Their neighbors were welcome to their possessions.
“I don’t lay down any rules,”’ said Mary, recovering herself first, as they turned after a long pause of this description. “All I say is that you should know what you’re about—for certain; but,” she added, “I expect you do.”
At the same time she was profoundly perplexed, not only by what she knew of the arrangements for Katharine’s marriage, but by the impression which she had of her, there on her arm, dark and inscrutable.
They walked back again and reached the steps which led up to Mary’s flat. Here they stopped and paused for a moment, saying nothing.
“You must go in,” said Katharine, rousing herself. “He’s waiting all this time to go on with his reading.” She glanced up at the lighted window near the top of the house, and they both looked at it and waited for a moment. A flight of semicircular steps ran up to the hall, and Mary slowly mounted the first two or three, and paused, looking down upon Katharine.
“I think you underrate the value of that emotion,” she said slowly, and a little awkwardly. She climbed another step and looked down once more upon the figure that was only partly lit up, standing in the street with a colorless face turned upwards. As Mary hesitated, a cab came by and Katharine turned and stopped it, saying as she opened the door:
“Remember, I want to belong to your society—remember,” she added, having to raise her voice a little, and shutting the door upon the rest of her words.
Mary mounted the stairs step by step, as if she had to lift her body up an extremely steep ascent. She had had to wrench herself forcibly away from Katharine, and every step vanquished her desire. She held on grimly, encouraging herself as though she were actually making some great physical effort in climbing a height. She was conscious that Mr. Basnett, sitting at the top of the stairs with his documents, offered her solid footing if she were capable of reaching it. The knowledge gave her a faint sense of exaltation.
Mr. Basnett raised his eyes as she opened the door.
“I’ll go on where I left off,” he said. “Stop me if you want anything explained.”
He had been re-reading the document, and making pencil notes in the margin while he waited, and he went on again as if there had been no interruption. Mary sat down among the flat cushions, lit another cigarette, and listened with a frown upon her face.
Katharine leant back in the corner of the cab that carried her to Chelsea, conscious of fatigue, and conscious, too, of the sober and satisfactory nature of such industry as she had just witnessed. The thought of it composed and calmed her. When she reached home she let herself in as quietly as she could, in the hope that the household was already gone to bed. But her excursion had occupied less time than she thought, and she heard sounds of unmistakable liveliness upstairs. A door opened, and she drew herself into a ground-floor room in case the sound meant that Mr. Peyton were taking his leave. From where she stood she could see the stairs, though she was herself invisible. Some one was coming down the stairs, and now she saw that it was William Rodney. He looked a little strange, as if he were walking in his sleep; his lips moved as if he were acting some part to himself. He came down very slowly, step by step, with one hand upon the banisters to guide himself. She thought he looked as if he were in some mood of high exaltation, which it made her uncomfortable to witness any longer unseen. She stepped into the hall. He gave a great start upon seeing her and stopped.
“Katharine!” he exclaimed. “You’ve been out?” he asked.
“Yes.... Are they still up?”
He did not answer, and walked into the ground-floor room through the door which stood open.
“It’s been more wonderful than I can tell you,” he said, “I’m incredibly happy—”
He was scarcely addressing her, and she said nothing. For a moment they stood at opposite sides of a table saying nothing. Then he asked her quickly, “But tell me, how did it seem to you? What did you think, Katharine? Is there a chance that she likes me? Tell me, Katharine!”
Before she could answer a door opened on the landing above and disturbed them. It disturbed William excessively. He started back, walked rapidly into the hall, and said in a loud and ostentatiously ordinary tone:
“Good night, Katharine. Go to bed now. I shall see you soon. I hope I shall be able to come to-morrow.”
Next moment he was gone. She went upstairs and found Cassandra on the landing. She held two or three books in her hand, and she was stooping to look at others in a little bookcase. She said that she could never tell which book she wanted to read in bed, poetry, biography, or metaphysics.
“What do you read in bed, Katharine?” she asked, as they walked upstairs side by side.
“Sometimes one thing—sometimes another,” said Katharine vaguely. Cassandra looked at her.
“D’you know, you’re extraordinarily queer,” she said. “Every one seems to me a little queer. Perhaps it’s the effect of London.”
“Is William queer, too?” Katharine asked.
“Well, I think he is a little,” Cassandra replied. “Queer, but very fascinating. I shall read Milton to-night. It’s been one of the happiest nights of my life, Katharine,” she added, looking with shy devotion at her cousin’s beautiful face.