Chapter XXXIV

The lamps were lit; their luster reflected itself in the polished wood; good wine was passed round the dinner-table; before the meal was far advanced civilization had triumphed, and Mr. Hilbery presided over a feast which came to wear more and more surely an aspect, cheerful, dignified, promising well for the future. To judge from the expression in Katharine’s eyes it promised something—but he checked the approach sentimentality. He poured out wine; he bade Denham help himself.

They went upstairs and he saw Katharine and Denham abstract themselves directly Cassandra had asked whether she might not play him something—some Mozart? some Beethoven? She sat down to the piano; the door closed softly behind them. His eyes rested on the closed door for some seconds unwaveringly, but, by degrees, the look of expectation died out of them, and, with a sigh, he listened to the music.

Katharine and Ralph were agreed with scarcely a word of discussion as to what they wished to do, and in a moment she joined him in the hall dressed for walking. The night was still and moonlit, fit for walking, though any night would have seemed so to them, desiring more than anything movement, freedom from scrutiny, silence, and the open air.

“At last!” she breathed, as the front door shut. She told him how she had waited, fidgeted, thought he was never coming, listened for the sound of doors, half expected to see him again under the lamp-post, looking at the house. They turned and looked at the serene front with its gold-rimmed windows, to him the shrine of so much adoration. In spite of her laugh and the little pressure of mockery on his arm, he would not resign his belief, but with her hand resting there, her voice quickened and mysteriously moving in his ears, he had not time—they had not the same inclination—other objects drew his attention.

How they came to find themselves walking down a street with many lamps, corners radiant with light, and a steady succession of motor-omnibuses plying both ways along it, they could neither of them tell; nor account for the impulse which led them suddenly to select one of these wayfarers and mount to the very front seat. After curving through streets of comparative darkness, so narrow that shadows on the blinds were pressed within a few feet of their faces, they came to one of those great knots of activity where the lights, having drawn close together, thin out again and take their separate ways. They were borne on until they saw the spires of the city churches pale and flat against the sky.

“Are you cold?” he asked, as they stopped by Temple Bar.

“Yes, I am rather,” she replied, becoming conscious that the splendid race of lights drawn past her eyes by the superb curving and swerving of the monster on which she sat was at an end. They had followed some such course in their thoughts too; they had been borne on, victors in the forefront of some triumphal car, spectators of a pageant enacted for them, masters of life. But standing on the pavement alone, this exaltation left them; they were glad to be alone together. Ralph stood still for a moment to light his pipe beneath a lamp.

She looked at his face isolated in the little circle of light.

“Oh, that cottage,” she said. “We must take it and go there.”

“And leave all this?” he inquired.

“As you like,” she replied. She thought, looking at the sky above Chancery Lane, how the roof was the same everywhere; how she was now secure of all that this lofty blue and its steadfast lights meant to her; reality, was it, figures, love, truth?

“I’ve something on my mind,” said Ralph abruptly. “I mean I’ve been thinking of Mary Datchet. We’re very near her rooms now. Would you mind if we went there?”

She had turned before she answered him. She had no wish to see any one to-night; it seemed to her that the immense riddle was answered; the problem had been solved; she held in her hands for one brief moment the globe which we spend our lives in trying to shape, round, whole, and entire from the confusion of chaos. To see Mary was to risk the destruction of this globe.

“Did you treat her badly?” she asked rather mechanically, walking on.

“I could defend myself,” he said, almost defiantly. “But what’s the use, if one feels a thing? I won’t be with her a minute,” he said. “I’ll just tell her—”

“Of course, you must tell her,” said Katharine, and now felt anxious for him to do what appeared to be necessary if he, too, were to hold his globe for a moment round, whole, and entire.

“I wish—I wish—” she sighed, for melancholy came over her and obscured at least a section of her clear vision. The globe swam before her as if obscured by tears.

“I regret nothing,” said Ralph firmly. She leant towards him almost as if she could thus see what he saw. She thought how obscure he still was to her, save only that more and more constantly he appeared to her a fire burning through its smoke, a source of life.

“Go on,” she said. “You regret nothing—”

“Nothing—nothing,” he repeated.

“What a fire!” she thought to herself. She thought of him blazing splendidly in the night, yet so obscure that to hold his arm, as she held it, was only to touch the opaque substance surrounding the flame that roared upwards.

“Why nothing?” she asked hurriedly, in order that he might say more and so make more splendid, more red, more darkly intertwined with smoke this flame rushing upwards.

“What are you thinking of, Katharine?” he asked suspiciously, noticing her tone of dreaminess and the inapt words.

“I was thinking of you—yes, I swear it. Always of you, but you take such strange shapes in my mind. You’ve destroyed my loneliness. Am I to tell you how I see you? No, tell me—tell me from the beginning.”

Beginning with spasmodic words, he went on to speak more and more fluently, more and more passionately, feeling her leaning towards him, listening with wonder like a child, with gratitude like a woman. She interrupted him gravely now and then.

“But it was foolish to stand outside and look at the windows. Suppose William hadn’t seen you. Would you have gone to bed?”

He capped her reproof with wonderment that a woman of her age could have stood in Kingsway looking at the traffic until she forgot.

“But it was then I first knew I loved you!” she exclaimed.

“Tell me from the beginning,” he begged her.

“No, I’m a person who can’t tell things,” she pleaded. “I shall say something ridiculous—something about flames—fires. No, I can’t tell you.”

But he persuaded her into a broken statement, beautiful to him, charged with extreme excitement as she spoke of the dark red fire, and the smoke twined round it, making him feel that he had stepped over the threshold into the faintly lit vastness of another mind, stirring with shapes, so large, so dim, unveiling themselves only in flashes, and moving away again into the darkness, engulfed by it. They had walked by this time to the street in which Mary lived, and being engrossed by what they said and partly saw, passed her staircase without looking up. At this time of night there was no traffic and scarcely any foot-passengers, so that they could pace slowly without interruption, arm-in-arm, raising their hands now and then to draw something upon the vast blue curtain of the sky.

They brought themselves by these means, acting on a mood of profound happiness, to a state of clear-sightedness where the lifting of a finger had effect, and one word spoke more than a sentence. They lapsed gently into silence, traveling the dark paths of thought side by side towards something discerned in the distance which gradually possessed them both. They were victors, masters of life, but at the same time absorbed in the flame, giving their life to increase its brightness, to testify to their faith. Thus they had walked, perhaps, twice or three times up and down Mary Datchet’s street before the recurrence of a light burning behind a thin, yellow blind caused them to stop without exactly knowing why they did so. It burned itself into their minds.

“That is the light in Mary’s room,” said Ralph. “She must be at home.” He pointed across the street. Katharine’s eyes rested there too.

“Is she alone, working at this time of night? What is she working at?” she wondered. “Why should we interrupt her?” she asked passionately. “What have we got to give her? She’s happy too,” she added. “She has her work.” Her voice shook slightly, and the light swam like an ocean of gold behind her tears.

“You don’t want me to go to her?” Ralph asked.

“Go, if you like; tell her what you like,” she replied.

He crossed the road immediately, and went up the steps into Mary’s house. Katharine stood where he left her, looking at the window and expecting soon to see a shadow move across it; but she saw nothing; the blinds conveyed nothing; the light was not moved. It signaled to her across the dark street; it was a sign of triumph shining there for ever, not to be extinguished this side of the grave. She brandished her happiness as if in salute; she dipped it as if in reverence. “How they burn!” she thought, and all the darkness of London seemed set with fires, roaring upwards; but her eyes came back to Mary’s window and rested there satisfied. She had waited some time before a figure detached itself from the doorway and came across the road, slowly and reluctantly, to where she stood.

“I didn’t go in—I couldn’t bring myself,” he broke off. He had stood outside Mary’s door unable to bring himself to knock; if she had come out she would have found him there, the tears running down his cheeks, unable to speak.

They stood for some moments, looking at the illuminated blinds, an expression to them both of something impersonal and serene in the spirit of the woman within, working out her plans far into the night—her plans for the good of a world that none of them were ever to know. Then their minds jumped on and other little figures came by in procession, headed, in Ralph’s view, by the figure of Sally Seal.

“Do you remember Sally Seal?” he asked. Katharine bent her head.

“Your mother and Mary?” he went on. “Rodney and Cassandra? Old Joan up at Highgate?” He stopped in his enumeration, not finding it possible to link them together in any way that should explain the queer combination which he could perceive in them, as he thought of them. They appeared to him to be more than individuals; to be made up of many different things in cohesion; he had a vision of an orderly world.

“It’s all so easy—it’s all so simple,” Katherine quoted, remembering some words of Sally Seal’s, and wishing Ralph to understand that she followed the track of his thought. She felt him trying to piece together in a laborious and elementary fashion fragments of belief, unsoldered and separate, lacking the unity of phrases fashioned by the old believers. Together they groped in this difficult region, where the unfinished, the unfulfilled, the unwritten, the unreturned, came together in their ghostly way and wore the semblance of the complete and the satisfactory. The future emerged more splendid than ever from this construction of the present. Books were to be written, and since books must be written in rooms, and rooms must have hangings, and outside the windows there must be land, and an horizon to that land, and trees perhaps, and a hill, they sketched a habitation for themselves upon the outline of great offices in the Strand and continued to make an account of the future upon the omnibus which took them towards Chelsea; and still, for both of them, it swam miraculously in the golden light of a large steady lamp.

As the night was far advanced they had the whole of the seats on the top of the omnibus to choose from, and the roads, save for an occasional couple, wearing even at midnight, an air of sheltering their words from the public, were deserted. No longer did the shadow of a man sing to the shadow of a piano. A few lights in bedroom windows burnt but were extinguished one by one as the omnibus passed them.

They dismounted and walked down to the river. She felt his arm stiffen beneath her hand, and knew by this token that they had entered the enchanted region. She might speak to him, but with that strange tremor in his voice, those eyes blindly adoring, whom did he answer? What woman did he see? And where was she walking, and who was her companion? Moments, fragments, a second of vision, and then the flying waters, the winds dissipating and dissolving; then, too, the recollection from chaos, the return of security, the earth firm, superb and brilliant in the sun. From the heart of his darkness he spoke his thanksgiving; from a region as far, as hidden, she answered him. On a June night the nightingales sing, they answer each other across the plain; they are heard under the window among the trees in the garden. Pausing, they looked down into the river which bore its dark tide of waters, endlessly moving, beneath them. They turned and found themselves opposite the house. Quietly they surveyed the friendly place, burning its lamps either in expectation of them or because Rodney was still there talking to Cassandra. Katharine pushed the door half open and stood upon the threshold. The light lay in soft golden grains upon the deep obscurity of the hushed and sleeping household. For a moment they waited, and then loosed their hands. “Good night,” he breathed. “Good night,” she murmured back to him.