One after another they rose and stretched themselves, and in a few minutes divided more or less into two separate parties. One of these parties was dominated by Hughling Elliot and Mrs. Thornbury, who, having both read the same books and considered the same questions, were now anxious to name the places beneath them and to hang upon them stores of information about navies and armies, political parties, natives and mineral products—all of which combined, they said, to prove that South America was the country of the future.
Evelyn M. listened with her bright blue eyes fixed upon the oracles.
"How it makes one long to be a man!" she exclaimed.
Mr. Perrott answered, surveying the plain, that a country with a future was a very fine thing.
"If I were you," said Evelyn, turning to him and drawing her glove vehemently through her fingers, "I'd raise a troop and conquer some great territory and make it splendid. You'd want women for that. I'd love to start life from the very beginning as it ought to be—nothing squalid—but great halls and gardens and splendid men and women. But you—you only like Law Courts!"
"And would you really be content without pretty frocks and sweets and all the things young ladies like?" asked Mr. Perrott, concealing a certain amount of pain beneath his ironical manner.
"I'm not a young lady," Evelyn flashed; she bit her underlip. "Just because I like splendid things you laugh at me. Why are there no men like Garibaldi now?" she demanded.
"Look here," said Mr. Perrott, "you don't give me a chance. You think we ought to begin things fresh. Good. But I don't see precisely—conquer a territory? They're all conquered already, aren't they?"
"It's not any territory in particular," Evelyn explained. "It's the idea, don't you see? We lead such tame lives. And I feel sure you've got splendid things in you."
Hewet saw the scars and hollows in Mr. Perrott's sagacious face relax pathetically. He could imagine the calculations which even then went on within his mind, as to whether he would be justified in asking a woman to marry him, considering that he made no more than five hundred a year at the Bar, owned no private means, and had an invalid sister to support. Mr. Perrott again knew that he was not "quite," as Susan stated in her diary; not quite a gentleman she meant, for he was the son of a grocer in Leeds, had started life with a basket on his back, and now, though practically indistinguishable from a born gentleman, showed his origin to keen eyes in an impeccable neatness of dress, lack of freedom in manner, extreme cleanliness of person, and a certain indescribable timidity and precision with his knife and fork which might be the relic of days when meat was rare, and the way of handling it by no means gingerly.
The two parties who were strolling about and losing their unity now came together, and joined each other in a long stare over the yellow and green patches of the heated landscape below. The hot air danced across it, making it impossible to see the roofs of a village on the plain distinctly. Even on the top of the mountain where a breeze played lightly, it was very hot, and the heat, the food, the immense space, and perhaps some less well-defined cause produced a comfortable drowsiness and a sense of happy relaxation in them. They did not say much, but felt no constraint in being silent.
"Suppose we go and see what's to be seen over there?" said Arthur to Susan, and the pair walked off together, their departure certainly sending some thrill of emotion through the rest.
"An odd lot, aren't they?" said Arthur. "I thought we should never get 'em all to the top. But I'm glad we came, by Jove! I wouldn't have missed this for something."
"I don't like Mr. Hirst," said Susan inconsequently. "I suppose he's very clever, but why should clever people be so—I expect he's awfully nice, really," she added, instinctively qualifying what might have seemed an unkind remark.
"Hirst? Oh, he's one of these learned chaps," said Arthur indifferently. "He don't look as if he enjoyed it. You should hear him talking to Elliot. It's as much as I can do to follow 'em at all. . . . I was never good at my books."
With these sentences and the pauses that came between them they reached a little hillock, on the top of which grew several slim trees.
"D'you mind if we sit down here?" said Arthur, looking about him. "It's jolly in the shade—and the view—" They sat down, and looked straight ahead of them in silence for some time.
"But I do envy those clever chaps sometimes," Arthur remarked. "I don't suppose they ever . . ." He did not finish his sentence.
"I can't see why you should envy them," said Susan, with great sincerity.
"Odd things happen to one," said Arthur. "One goes along smoothly enough, one thing following another, and it's all very jolly and plain sailing, and you think you know all about it, and suddenly one doesn't know where one is a bit, and everything seems different from what it used to seem. Now to-day, coming up that path, riding behind you, I seemed to see everything as if—" he paused and plucked a piece of grass up by the roots. He scattered the little lumps of earth which were sticking to the roots—"As if it had a kind of meaning. You've made the difference to me," he jerked out, "I don't see why I shouldn't tell you. I've felt it ever since I knew you. . . . It's because I love you."
Even while they had been saying commonplace things Susan had been conscious of the excitement of intimacy, which seemed not only to lay bare something in her, but in the trees and the sky, and the progress of his speech which seemed inevitable was positively painful to her, for no human being had ever come so close to her before.
She was struck motionless as his speech went on, and her heart gave great separate leaps at the last words. She sat with her fingers curled round a stone, looking straight in front of her down the mountain over the plain. So then, it had actually happened to her, a proposal of marriage.
Arthur looked round at her; his face was oddly twisted. She was drawing her breath with such difficulty that she could hardly answer.
"You might have known." He seized her in his arms; again and again and again they clasped each other, murmuring inarticulately.
"Well," sighed Arthur, sinking back on the ground, "that's the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me." He looked as if he were trying to put things seen in a dream beside real things.
There was a long silence.
"It's the most perfect thing in the world," Susan stated, very gently and with great conviction. It was no longer merely a proposal of marriage, but of marriage with Arthur, with whom she was in love.
In the silence that followed, holding his hand tightly in hers, she prayed to God that she might make him a good wife.
"And what will Mr. Perrott say?" she asked at the end of it.
"Dear old fellow," said Arthur who, now that the first shock was over, was relaxing into an enormous sense of pleasure and contentment. "We must be very nice to him, Susan."
He told her how hard Perrott's life had been, and how absurdly devoted he was to Arthur himself. He went on to tell her about his mother, a widow lady, of strong character. In return Susan sketched the portraits of her own family—Edith in particular, her youngest sister, whom she loved better than any one else, "except you, Arthur. . . . Arthur," she continued, "what was it that you first liked me for?"
"It was a buckle you wore one night at sea," said Arthur, after due consideration. "I remember noticing—it's an absurd thing to notice!—that you didn't take peas, because I don't either."
From this they went on to compare their more serious tastes, or rather Susan ascertained what Arthur cared about, and professed herself very fond of the same thing. They would live in London, perhaps have a cottage in the country near Susan's family, for they would find it strange without her at first. Her mind, stunned to begin with, now flew to the various changes that her engagement would make—how delightful it would be to join the ranks of the married women—no longer to hang on to groups of girls much younger than herself—to escape the long solitude of an old maid's life. Now and then her amazing good fortune overcame her, and she turned to Arthur with an exclamation of love.
They lay in each other's arms and had no notion that they were observed. Yet two figures suddenly appeared among the trees above them. "Here's shade," began Hewet, when Rachel suddenly stopped dead. They saw a man and woman lying on the ground beneath them, rolling slightly this way and that as the embrace tightened and slackened. The man then sat upright and the woman, who now appeared to be Susan Warrington, lay back upon the ground, with her eyes shut and an absorbed look upon her face, as though she were not altogether conscious. Nor could you tell from her expression whether she was happy, or had suffered something. When Arthur again turned to her, butting her as a lamb butts a ewe, Hewet and Rachel retreated without a word. Hewet felt uncomfortably shy.
"I don't like that," said Rachel after a moment.
"I can remember not liking it either," said Hewet. "I can remember—" but he changed his mind and continued in an ordinary tone of voice, "Well, we may take it for granted that they're engaged. D'you think he'll ever fly, or will she put a stop to that?"
But Rachel was still agitated; she could not get away from the sight they had just seen. Instead of answering Hewet she persisted.
"Love's an odd thing, isn't it, making one's heart beat."
"It's so enormously important, you see," Hewet replied. "Their lives are now changed for ever."
"And it makes one sorry for them too," Rachel continued, as though she were tracing the course of her feelings. "I don't know either of them, but I could almost burst into tears. That's silly, isn't it?"
"Just because they're in love," said Hewet. "Yes," he added after a moment's consideration, "there's something horribly pathetic about it, I agree."
And now, as they had walked some way from the grove of trees, and had come to a rounded hollow very tempting to the back, they proceeded to sit down, and the impression of the lovers lost some of its force, though a certain intensity of vision, which was probably the result of the sight, remained with them. As a day upon which any emotion has been repressed is different from other days, so this day was now different, merely because they had seen other people at a crisis of their lives.
"A great encampment of tents they might be," said Hewet, looking in front of him at the mountains. "Isn't it like a water-colour too—you know the way water-colours dry in ridges all across the paper—I've been wondering what they looked like."
His eyes became dreamy, as though he were matching things, and reminded Rachel in their colour of the green flesh of a snail. She sat beside him looking at the mountains too. When it became painful to look any longer, the great size of the view seeming to enlarge her eyes beyond their natural limit, she looked at the ground; it pleased her to scrutinise this inch of the soil of South America so minutely that she noticed every grain of earth and made it into a world where she was endowed with the supreme power. She bent a blade of grass, and set an insect on the utmost tassel of it, and wondered if the insect realised his strange adventure, and thought how strange it was that she should have bent that tassel rather than any other of the million tassels.
"You've never told me you name," said Hewet suddenly. "Miss Somebody Vinrace. . . . I like to know people's Christian names."
"Rachel," she replied.
"Rachel," he repeated. "I have an aunt called Rachel, who put the life of Father Damien into verse. She is a religious fanatic—the result of the way she was brought up, down in Northamptonshire, never seeing a soul. Have you any aunts?"
"I live with them," said Rachel.
"And I wonder what they're doing now?" Hewet enquired.
"They are probably buying wool," Rachel determined. She tried to describe them. "They are small, rather pale women," she began, "very clean. We live in Richmond. They have an old dog, too, who will only eat the marrow out of bones. . . . They are always going to church. They tidy their drawers a good deal." But here she was overcome by the difficulty of describing people.
"It's impossible to believe that it's all going on still!" she exclaimed.
The sun was behind them and two long shadows suddenly lay upon the ground in front of them, one waving because it was made by a skirt, and the other stationary, because thrown by a pair of legs in trousers.
"You look very comfortable!" said Helen's voice above them.
"Hirst," said Hewet, pointing at the scissorlike shadow; he then rolled round to look up at them.
"There's room for us all here," he said.
When Hirst had seated himself comfortably, he said:
"Did you congratulate the young couple?"
It appeared that, coming to the same spot a few minutes after Hewet and Rachel, Helen and Hirst had seen precisely the same thing.
"No, we didn't congratulate them," said Hewet. "They seemed very happy."
"Well," said Hirst, pursing up his lips, "so long as I needn't marry either of them—"
"We were very much moved," said Hewet.
"I thought you would be," said Hirst. "Which was it, Monk? The thought of the immortal passions, or the thought of new-born males to keep the Roman Catholics out? I assure you," he said to Helen, "he's capable of being moved by either."
Rachel was a good deal stung by his banter, which she felt to be directed equally against them both, but she could think of no repartee.
"Nothing moves Hirst," Hewet laughed; he did not seem to be stung at all. "Unless it were a transfinite number falling in love with a finite one—I suppose such things do happen, even in mathematics."
"On the contrary," said Hirst with a touch of annoyance, "I consider myself a person of very strong passions." It was clear from the way he spoke that he meant it seriously; he spoke of course for the benefit of the ladies.
"By the way, Hirst," said Hewet, after a pause, "I have a terrible confession to make. Your book—the poems of Wordsworth, which if you remember I took off your table just as we were starting, and certainly put in my pocket here—"
"Is lost," Hirst finished for him.
"I consider that there is still a chance," Hewet urged, slapping himself to right and left, "that I never did take it after all."
"No," said Hirst. "It is here." He pointed to his breast.
"Thank God," Hewet exclaimed. "I need no longer feel as though I'd murdered a child!"
"I should think you were always losing things," Helen remarked, looking at him meditatively.
"I don't lose things," said Hewet. "I mislay them. That was the reason why Hirst refused to share a cabin with me on the voyage out."
"You came out together?" Helen enquired.
"I propose that each member of this party now gives a short biographical sketch of himself or herself," said Hirst, sitting upright. "Miss Vinrace, you come first; begin."
Rachel stated that she was twenty-four years of age, the daughter of a ship-owner, that she had never been properly educated; played the piano, had no brothers or sisters, and lived at Richmond with aunts, her mother being dead.
"Next," said Hirst, having taken in these facts; he pointed at Hewet. "I am the son of an English gentleman. I am twenty-seven," Hewet began. "My father was a fox-hunting squire. He died when I was ten in the hunting field. I can remember his body coming home, on a shutter I suppose, just as I was going down to tea, and noticing that there was jam for tea, and wondering whether I should be allowed—"
"Yes; but keep to the facts," Hirst put in.
"I was educated at Winchester and Cambridge, which I had to leave after a time. I have done a good many things since—"
"Literary. I'm writing a novel."
"Brothers and sisters?"
"Three sisters, no brother, and a mother."
"Is that all we're to hear about you?" said Helen. She stated that she was very old—forty last October, and her father had been a solicitor in the city who had gone bankrupt, for which reason she had never had much education—they lived in one place after another—but an elder brother used to lend her books.
"If I were to tell you everything—" she stopped and smiled. "It would take too long," she concluded. "I married when I was thirty, and I have two children. My husband is a scholar. And now—it's your turn," she nodded at Hirst.
"You've left out a great deal," he reproved her. "My name is St. John Alaric Hirst," he began in a jaunty tone of voice. "I'm twenty-four years old. I'm the son of the Reverend Sidney Hirst, vicar of Great Wappyng in Norfolk. Oh, I got scholarships everywhere—Westminster—King's. I'm now a fellow of King's. Don't it sound dreary? Parents both alive (alas). Two brothers and one sister. I'm a very distinguished young man," he added.
"One of the three, or is it five, most distinguished men in England," Hewet remarked.
"Quite correct," said Hirst.
"That's all very interesting," said Helen after a pause. "But of course we've left out the only questions that matter. For instance, are we Christians?"
"I am not," "I am not," both the young men replied.
"I am," Rachel stated.
"You believe in a personal God?" Hirst demanded, turning round and fixing her with his eyeglasses.
"I believe—I believe," Rachel stammered, "I believe there are things we don't know about, and the world might change in a minute and anything appear."
At this Helen laughed outright. "Nonsense," she said. "You're not a Christian. You've never thought what you are.—And there are lots of other questions," she continued, "though perhaps we can't ask them yet." Although they had talked so freely they were all uncomfortably conscious that they really knew nothing about each other.
"The important questions," Hewet pondered, "the really interesting ones. I doubt that one ever does ask them."
Rachel, who was slow to accept the fact that only a very few things can be said even by people who know each other well, insisted on knowing what he meant.
"Whether we've ever been in love?" she enquired. "Is that the kind of question you mean?"
Again Helen laughed at her, benignantly strewing her with handfuls of the long tasselled grass, for she was so brave and so foolish.
"Oh, Rachel," she cried. "It's like having a puppy in the house having you with one—a puppy that brings one's underclothes down into the hall."
But again the sunny earth in front of them was crossed by fantastic wavering figures, the shadows of men and women.
"There they are!" exclaimed Mrs. Elliot. There was a touch of peevishness in her voice. "And we've had such a hunt to find you. Do you know what the time is?"
Mrs. Elliot and Mr. and Mrs. Thornbury now confronted them; Mrs. Elliot was holding out her watch, and playfully tapping it upon the face. Hewet was recalled to the fact that this was a party for which he was responsible, and he immediately led them back to the watch-tower, where they were to have tea before starting home again. A bright crimson scarf fluttered from the top of the wall, which Mr. Perrott and Evelyn were tying to a stone as the others came up. The heat had changed just so far that instead of sitting in the shadow they sat in the sun, which was still hot enough to paint their faces red and yellow, and to colour great sections of the earth beneath them.
"There's nothing half so nice as tea!" said Mrs. Thornbury, taking her cup.
"Nothing," said Helen. "Can't you remember as a child chopping up hay—" she spoke much more quickly than usual, and kept her eye fixed upon Mrs. Thornbury, "and pretending it was tea, and getting scolded by the nurses—why I can't imagine, except that nurses are such brutes, won't allow pepper instead of salt though there's no earthly harm in it. Weren't your nurses just the same?"
During this speech Susan came into the group, and sat down by Helen's side. A few minutes later Mr. Venning strolled up from the opposite direction. He was a little flushed, and in the mood to answer hilariously whatever was said to him.
"What have you been doing to that old chap's grave?" he asked, pointing to the red flag which floated from the top of the stones.
"We have tried to make him forget his misfortune in having died three hundred years ago," said Mr. Perrott.
"It would be awful—to be dead!" ejaculated Evelyn M.
"To be dead?" said Hewet. "I don't think it would be awful. It's quite easy to imagine. When you go to bed to-night fold your hands so—breathe slower and slower—" He lay back with his hands clasped upon his breast, and his eyes shut, "Now," he murmured in an even monotonous voice, "I shall never, never, never move again." His body, lying flat among them, did for a moment suggest death.
"This is a horrible exhibition, Mr. Hewet!" cried Mrs. Thornbury.
"More cake for us!" said Arthur.
"I assure you there's nothing horrible about it," said Hewet, sitting up and laying hands upon the cake.
"It's so natural," he repeated. "People with children should make them do that exercise every night. . . . Not that I look forward to being dead."
"And when you allude to a grave," said Mr. Thornbury, who spoke almost for the first time, "have you any authority for calling that ruin a grave? I am quite with you in refusing to accept the common interpretation which declares it to be the remains of an Elizabethan watch-tower—any more than I believe that the circular mounds or barrows which we find on the top of our English downs were camps. The antiquaries call everything a camp. I am always asking them, Well then, where do you think our ancestors kept their cattle? Half the camps in England are merely the ancient pound or barton as we call it in my part of the world. The argument that no one would keep his cattle in such exposed and inaccessible spots has no weight at all, if you reflect that in those days a man's cattle were his capital, his stock-in-trade, his daughter's dowries. Without cattle he was a serf, another man's man. . . ." His eyes slowly lost their intensity, and he muttered a few concluding words under his breath, looking curiously old and forlorn.
Hughling Elliot, who might have been expected to engage the old gentleman in argument, was absent at the moment. He now came up holding out a large square of cotton upon which a fine design was printed in pleasant bright colours that made his hand look pale.
"A bargain," he announced, laying it down on the cloth. "I've just bought it from the big man with the ear-rings. Fine, isn't it? It wouldn't suit every one, of course, but it's just the thing—isn't it, Hilda?—for Mrs. Raymond Parry."
"Mrs. Raymond Parry!" cried Helen and Mrs. Thornbury at the same moment.
They looked at each other as though a mist hitherto obscuring their faces had been blown away.
"Ah—you have been to those wonderful parties too?" Mrs. Elliot asked with interest.
Mrs. Parry's drawing-room, though thousands of miles away, behind a vast curve of water on a tiny piece of earth, came before their eyes. They who had had no solidity or anchorage before seemed to be attached to it somehow, and at once grown more substantial. Perhaps they had been in the drawing-room at the same moment; perhaps they had passed each other on the stairs; at any rate they knew some of the same people. They looked one another up and down with new interest. But they could do no more than look at each other, for there was no time to enjoy the fruits of the discovery. The donkeys were advancing, and it was advisable to begin the descent immediately, for the night fell so quickly that it would be dark before they were home again.
Accordingly, remounting in order, they filed off down the hillside. Scraps of talk came floating back from one to another. There were jokes to begin with, and laughter; some walked part of the way, and picked flowers, and sent stones bounding before them.
"Who writes the best Latin verse in your college, Hirst?" Mr. Elliot called back incongruously, and Mr. Hirst returned that he had no idea.
The dusk fell as suddenly as the natives had warned them, the hollows of the mountain on either side filling up with darkness and the path becoming so dim that it was surprising to hear the donkeys' hooves still striking on hard rock. Silence fell upon one, and then upon another, until they were all silent, their minds spilling out into the deep blue air. The way seemed shorter in the dark than in the day; and soon the lights of the town were seen on the flat far beneath them.
Suddenly some one cried, "Ah!"
In a moment the slow yellow drop rose again from the plain below; it rose, paused, opened like a flower, and fell in a shower of drops.
"Fireworks," they cried.
Another went up more quickly; and then another; they could almost hear it twist and roar.
"Some Saint's day, I suppose," said a voice. The rush and embrace of the rockets as they soared up into the air seemed like the fiery way in which lovers suddenly rose and united, leaving the crowd gazing up at them with strained white faces. But Susan and Arthur, riding down the hill, never said a word to each other, and kept accurately apart.
Then the fireworks became erratic, and soon they ceased altogether, and the rest of the journey was made almost in darkness, the mountain being a great shadow behind them, and bushes and trees little shadows which threw darkness across the road. Among the plane-trees they separated, bundling into carriages and driving off, without saying good-night, or saying it only in a half-muffled way.
It was so late that there was no time for normal conversation between their arrival at the hotel and their retirement to bed. But Hirst wandered into Hewet's room with a collar in his hand.
"Well, Hewet," he remarked, on the crest of a gigantic yawn, "that was a great success, I consider." He yawned. "But take care you're not landed with that young woman. . . . I don't really like young women. . . ."
Hewet was too much drugged by hours in the open air to make any reply. In fact every one of the party was sound asleep within ten minutes or so of each other, with the exception of Susan Warrington. She lay for a considerable time looking blankly at the wall opposite, her hands clasped above her heart, and her light burning by her side. All articulate thought had long ago deserted her; her heart seemed to have grown to the size of a sun, and to illuminate her entire body, shedding like the sun a steady tide of warmth.
"I'm happy, I'm happy, I'm happy," she repeated. "I love every one. I'm happy."