Her hands fell

The days dropped into the cup of time; measures of light and shade, of
waxing and waning, ushered in with pale winter dawns, huddled away in
rapid gloomy twilights, according to the precise yearly formula.

But to Rosamond these hours in the forgotten old manor-house on the
moorlands, where the winds were the only visitors, brought so great a
change that it was as if a gate had been shut upon her former road.

A common prate is that Time works the changes in us. And when we look
from the child to the man, it would seem absurd even to raise the
question. Yet it is not time that works the mightiest changes. Nay, in
the world of the soul time but emphasises. The great upheavals that
obliterate in our lives all familiar landmarks—that do alter everything
down to our most intimate capacity of feeling, are sometimes but the
work of one instant. It is not time that ravages, it is not time that
draws the wrinkle seared into the heart; not to time do we owe the
spread of the grey, instead of the gold that used to colour the web of
existence. A man may carry the singing soul of his April to the
death-bed of his old body. Yet again the heart may wither in a span so
short as scarce to be measured.

And sometimes a change, so complete that even within our own soul we
find ourselves suddenly on foreign ground, will come without any
striking external event, without any apparent outside reason. In the
life of the soul a crisis has occurred—and lo! the very world of God is
different. Nay, God himself is another to us.

During these short wind-swept November days in the green and brown
manor-house, there, amid the solitary downs, did such a change come to
Rosamond. Had she tried, she could scarce have found her old self again.
But she did not try; for this new self was at peace, was wrapped in
dreams of great sweetness, and yet awake to a life hitherto not even
guessed at.

* * * * *

In the attic room that had been Harry’s own, she sat alone. A furious
shower was pattering on the tiles close over her head, a drenched ivy
spray was beating against the gable window like a frantic thing that
wanted shelter, a pair of sparrows were answering each other with
defiant chirrup. Far below in the house, Aspasia was lustily calling
upon a recreant kitten. In the moorland silence these few trivial
sounds became insistent, and yet seemed but to assert the silence
itself.

She was seated at the wide battered old writing-table which schoolboy
Harry English had scored with penknife and chisel, burned and
inkstained. Before her a small writing-desk was spread open, and two or
three letters lay loosely under her clasped hands. Her eyes were
musingly fixed upon the rain-beaten pane with the knocking ivy branch;
her lips were parted by a vaguely recurrent smile. And, as the smile
came and went, a transient red glowed faintly upon her cheeks…. The
world for her now was not upon the edge of winter: it was spring. She
was not Rosamond Gerardine, out of touch with life, she was not Rosamond
English, widow—she was Rosamond Tempest, maid once more, on the
threshold of her life, at the April of the year. And Harry English was
her lover. And yet she was a Rosamond Tempest such as he had never
known—such a Rosamond Tempest as had never yet existed.

She took the letter that lay uppermost to her hand. It was dated
Saltwoods. Written here—at this very desk, no doubt. Perhaps with this
very ivory penholder, fluted, yellow, stained, while he sat in this same
Windsor chair…. Unconsciously she caressed the worn wooden arms
whereon his arms must have rested. Then again she set herself to read:—

“Saltwoods, 19th April.”

On that April 19, all those years ago, he was thinking of her, writing
to her! And she—so many miles away, shut in by the dreariest prison
walls fate had ever built round a young impatient soul—had then not the
faintest hint of her deliverer’s approach.

DEAR MISS TEMPEST,—I dare say you have quite forgotten me. I
was the youngest griffin, just before the old Colonel’s death.
I hope you will not think it a great impertinence in me to write
like this to you; but my leave is up in a week or so, and I
don’t like to leave England without having seen your father’s
daughter again. I can never forget how kind he was to me—and
your mother too. It made all the difference to me; such a young
fool as I was, and so new to India and everything. I find I
know some of the fellows at Fort Monkton, and I’m going to stop
there a few days. May I call—and if so, when? Yours sincerely,
HARRY ENGLISH. P.S.—I’ve only just found out where you are.

To Rosamond—most unwilling inmate in a household where, if she was not
actually a burden, the smallness of her pittance rendered her certainly
no material gain—this letter had brought a sort of vision of the past, a
gleam of bygone light which made the present even more intolerable by
contrast. It had been something to her to think that she should meet
some one at last belonging to her old life, some one who had known her
in those glamorous years of her happiness, some one straight from the
magic shores that had held her in her happy years.

From eight to sixteen had Rosamond Tempest spent her life between the
little hill station, the refuge of their hot season, and the historic
old northern town where her father’s duty lay—a sort of little Princess
Royal, with a hundred devoted slaves and a score of gallant young
courtiers, the imperious favourite of the whole station, native and
white alike…. Oh the rides in the dawn! oh the picnics by moonlight!
the many-coloured, vivid days that went with such swing, where every man
almost was a hero, where the very air seemed full of the romance of
frontier fights, of raids, and big game hunts, of “Tiger, tiger, burning
bright” in jungle haunts! … It had been surely the cruellest stroke of
fate that had thrust the little spoilt girl, the beloved only child,
from this pinnacle of bliss and importance!

Between one day and another Rosamond had become the penniless orphan,
whom nobody wanted … whom it was so kind of Major and Mrs. Carter to
escort back to England, whom it was almost superhumanly good of Uncle
and Aunt Baynes to admit into their family.

“A self-centered child,” said Mrs. “General Baynes.” “A cold-blooded
little wretch,” opined her cousins. Well, it was a fact that, during
the four years that elapsed between her departure from India and the
receipt of Captain English’s letter, Rosamond had not given a human
being one word, one look in confidence….

Late April on the Hampshire coast, with the gorse breaking into gorgeous
yellow flame, honey-sweet in the sunshine; with the white clouds
scurrying across a blue sky, chased by the merriest madcap wind that
ever scampered; with the waves breaking from afar off, dashing up a
thousand diamonds falling over and over each other in their race for the
beach, roaring on the shingle in clamorous good-fellowship, the foam
creaming in ever wider circles. And, across the leaping belt of waters,
green and amber and white, the island, flashing too: the windows and
roofs of the happy-looking town throwing back the sun glances, set in
smooth slopes, mildly radiating green, like chrysoprase and peridot….

* * * * *

Rosamond had dropped the letter from her hand; again she was dreaming.
Not the plaint of the November wind round the gable roof of Saltwoods in
her ears, but the chant of this April chorus on Alverstoke beach. Not
the monotonous ting of Aspasia’s finger exercise from the room below,
but the irregular boom and thud of gun practice far out at sea, brought
in by the gust. And the voice that fell into silence so far away
between the wild Indian hills was speaking to her again. And she heard,
heard for the first time….

Rosamond Gerardine, virgin of heart through her two marriages, was being
wooed! And the virgin in her was trembling and troubled, as womanhood
awoke…. He held her hands and looked into her eyes. His cheeks were
pale under their bronze, his lips trembled—”Could you trust me? Do you
think me mad? I’ve only known you four days, but I’ve dreamt of you,
all my life…. Rosamond!”

The sea wind was eddying round them, the grasses at Rosamond’s feet were
nodding like mad things in the gusts. Her hair was whipped against her
face. So, on this English shore, with the taste of the salt in their
mouths, with the wild salt moist winds all about them—this Englishman
wooed this English girl, to come away and be his love in the burning
East. Yes, she could trust him. Who could look into his true eyes and
not trust him? But then it was the thought of the East, the East of her
lost childhood’s joy, that won her. Now, back in England’s heart, from
an East abhorred, to the loathing as of blood and cruelty, it was the
lover, it was the love!

Again she felt the touch of his first kiss. He had sought her lips, but
she had turned her cheek. Now—the blood rushed up into her face; her
heart beat faster, almost a faintness crept over her. She dropped her
head upon her outstretched arms, her burning cheek upon his letter …
again his strong arms held her.

* * * * *

Once more they parted at the gate of the house that was her prison. He
was going back to India in ten days, and she would go with him,
confidently, gladly!

She walked up the path between the straggling wallflowers, the pungent
marigolds, into the mean narrow hall. Then her only thought had been of
sailing away from that sordid genteel abode, back to fair India, the
land of her dreams. Now—now, as across these years she re-lived that
great day of her youth, her heart was swooning over the memory of his
kiss; her brain was filled with a vision of his tender trembling lips;
of the light in his eyes as he looked back at her, of the swing of his
broad shoulders as he rounded the crescent towards the fort.

* * * * *

Miss Aspasia Cuningham was in a decidedly bad temper. To be home again,
in England, to have unlimited opportunity of working out the Leschetizky
method on a superfine Steinway piano, the most complete immunity from
interfering uncles, from social duties, philistine secretaries and
attaches, appeared a most delightful existence—in theory. But, in
practice it was dull. Yes, dull was the word.

With four fingers pressing four consecutive notes while the remaining
digit hammered away, vindictively, at the fifth; with pouting lip
out-thrust, she had reached the point of telling herself that even India
was better than this.

“Horrid place,” ran Baby’s angry cogitation, while the finger
conscientiously drummed, “nothing but those stupid trees and that deadly
moor, and the birds’ chirp, chirp, and not a neighbour within miles; or
if there were, with Aunt Rosamond not wanting to see a soul; not even
the curate—and he’s got eyes like marbles!”

Aspasia gave a little titter and changed the drumming finger from the
third to the fourth. This was a less elastic member; and she grew pink
with unconscious energy, while pursuing the inner monologue.

“I do think that disgusting Major Bethune might have given us some sign
of life. People have no business to look into people’s eyes like that,
and press people’s hands, and then go off and mean nothing at all.
Not,” said Baby, blowing out her nostrils with a fine breath of scorn,
“that one ever thought of him in that way. But he—oh, he’s just a
horrid wretch like the rest! All the nice ones die, I think. At least,
I’ve never met any.”

She brought down the left hand in its turn, with a crash, on the five
notes; and the fine discord seemed to have relieving effect. The
reflections proceeded in a softer vein.

“Harry English—he must have been a dear.” She turned her head to look
for the inevitable portrait. There was scarce a room in Saltwoods that
did not hold two or three presentments of him; sketches, most of them,
by the faithful, forcible hand of the artist mother; photographs, too,
in well-nigh every stage of the boy’s development. Even Aspasia,
positive, practical, unimaginative, could not but have fallen under the
influence of the haunting presence. And in her actual mood of
disillusion with Raymond Bethune, the ante-room of her girl’s heart,
that airy space open to all the winds, where so many come, pause, and
go, was now, half in idleness, half in contradiction, consecrate to the
image of gallant Harry English.

“How Aunt Rosamond could!” she thought, as she dreamily fixed her eyes
upon that charcoal sketch which held one panel of the drawing-room, and
which had been Mrs. English’s last work. It was a much enlarged copy of
the photograph on the shrine, and, whether by some unconscious
transcription of her own sorrow, or whether her mother eyes had
discovered in the little picture some stern premonition of his own
approaching fate, the artist had given the strong bold face an
expression that was almost bitter in its melancholy.

“How Aunt Rosamond could——” thought the girl, “when she had been loved
by such a man, ever, ever have looked at any one else? Fancy—the
Runkle!” Ah, if Aspasia had been loved by English, how nobly she would
have borne her widowhood! Her heart, of course, would have been
absolutely, completely broken; she would have gone about in deep, deep
widow’s weeds. And strangers, looking after her, noticing the sweet
pale face amid the crape, would ask who she was and would be told in
whispers: the widow of the hero of the Baroghil expedition. “Ah, it
would have been sweet to have been loved by you, Harry English!”

Her hands fell from the piano; her soul was away upon a dream as vague
and innocent as it was absorbing. Too often did the Leschetizky method
end in this manner. The while Rosamond, high in her attic, dreamed that
she was a girl once more, and that she had just been told that Harry
English loved her.

There was sunshine enough without to have tempted the most obstinate
recluse into the fields. But as little as she had heeded November rain
did Rosamond now heed the brightness of this opening December. While the
old attic room held her bodily presence, her soul was once again back in
the past. The past … where, after all, she had not lived, and which
(strange poignant lesson of fate!) was now to become to her more living
than the present.

Those letters, those early memorials, the very thought of which had once
inspired dread, now drew her like a magnet. Scarcely could she give
herself to the necessary facts of life, so impatiently did she long for
those solitary hours in his room, with him!

Every trifling note of his was pored over, dreamt upon in its turn. She
had it in her to have lingered days upon a single line. Yet there was
the sweetness of a tender surprise in every fresh sheet she took into
her hands. And now it was her first “love letter” that she held.

It had come to her in the morning after their meeting in the salt wind,
amid the gorse; had been brought to her—in the ugly top bedroom—on a
basket brimming over with flowers. She could see them again, breathe
them again: hot-house roses, languid-white and heavy-headed yellow, a
huge clump of heliotrope, lily of the valley bound by its pale green
sheaths, sharp-scented, waxen … then the narcissus, the jonquil, the
darling commoner herd of spring things that had pushed their way in the
open gardens! All this to Rosamond, starved of beauty, Rosamond who was
wont to fill her vases with the budding boughs that the hedges give the
gardenless! She had buried her face in the velvet coolness, drawn in the
perfume as if she was drawing in the loveliness to her soul. Through
the waste of those ten years she could again feel the touch of the
petals on her cheek—she was back again, back again in her maidenhood and
held her first love letter between her hands. Was it possible that the
faded nondescript leaf that fell from between its pages had once been
part of that exquisite basketful that could still bloom for her?

DARLING (wrote Harry English)—these are all I can send you. I
wanted to send you roses, love, worthy of my Rose, the only
Rose, of Rosamond, Rose of the World! I half dreamed of them
last night, red, red, glowing, deep-scented like my love for
you. I can find nothing but these pale mawkish things, far
though I have hunted this morning! …

This morning—and it was now but nine o’clock. How early he must have
risen! It was not the Rosamond, the hard young untouched Rosamond of
those old days, who thought thus with a mist before the eyes; it was the
new Rosamond whose heart was beginning to teach her so many things.

Early had the lover risen indeed!

I could not sleep (went on the letter) for sheer tumult of
happiness. I saw the dawn break over the water out on the sea
bastion of this old fort. The sea was quite wrapt in mist, and I
and my heart seemed first alone high up in the air, with the
wash of the invisible waters below and the restless tapping of
the flag line on the staff over my head. And then the dawn
came. It seemed to me the first dawn I had ever beheld, I, who
have marched through many an Indian night and seen such fires as
England never dreams of. But I look upon the world with new
eyes. The meaning of things has become clear to me. I never
saw beauty before I saw you; and through you, all other beauty
is fulfilled to me. Grey and dove-coloured and pearl, faint
roses and yellows and opals—the mists first became impregnated
with all lovely tints and then rolled away. Then there was a
straight ray of sun across the sea at my feet, and the water was
gold and green. Glorious! Why do I write all this to you? I
have never even thought of such things before. Will you laugh at
me? I, who have known you for such a little while? But I have
waited for you all the years of my manhood—this much I know at
least. And you, who are the meaning of everything to me now,
you will know the meaning of my heart.

All the meaning of her lover to Rosamond Tempest, in the top room over
the straggling back garden, had been that he was her deliverer from an
existence of utter negation. She had read his words with the same
pleasure with which she had gazed upon his flowers, inhaled their
fragrance: it had represented a new atmosphere of colour and beauty!

But now, as she bent over that faded leaf and read those vivid words
from a hand long dust, her whole being gave itself responsive to the
love that still spoke.

* * * * *

In the garden below, under the nipped frost-bitten leaves, Aspasia poked
about for hidden violets. From its bare brown stalks she had already
culled the last dwindled chrysanthemum. When Rosamond and she, in the
marshalled palace of Sir Arthur, had planned this homely occupation, it
had seemed an almost deliriously joyful prospect of freedom. Now, such
is the futility of the granted wish, Aspasia, as she flicked with
impatient fingers among the wet foliage, was a prey to that abandonment
of melancholy which is rarely known in its perfection after twenty.
Indeed, poor Baby’s outlook upon the world that December noon was a
pitiable one. The only man she could have loved was dead before she had
even known him! Another man, whom she was certain she could never have
cared for, displayed the most reprehensible indifference as to whether
he were as much as remembered. And those wonderful piano recitals of
the gifted young genius, Miss Aspasia Cuningham, seemed hopelessly
remote.

She could not even muster a smile for the kitten as it suddenly cantered
across the path, every individual hair bristling, body contorted, and
legs stiffened, to box a hanging leaf and fall prone on its back with
four paws wildly beating the air. The very kitten was part of the
general unsatisfactoriness of things. When she did have the heart to
play with it, it was never to be found: but it had a Puck-like knowledge
of the ripe moment when to mock her misery.

Indeed, the claims of the eager young life were somewhat neglected in
this old home of dreams.

Aspasia walked, in royal dignity of dolour, back to the house, set the
violets in two shallow vases, and the chrysanthemum in a high narrow
one. She placed the portable easel upon the open leaf of the grand
piano; she detached from its panel the portrait of Captain English with
the sad stern face, propped it on the easel, arranged her flowers round
it, all with the solemn air of one going through a religious rite. Then
she sat down, heaved a noisy sigh from the depth of her little round
chest, and began to play those throbbing strains of passion, yearning
disappointment, and sorrow that, the legend says, came to Chopin one
day, through the beat of raindrops against his window panes, as he
waited for her who failed him.

Baby had begun to find out that even in so serious an art as music those
paltry things, the emotions, will insist on finding expression. She was
in a very pretty state of artistic woe when, with a sudden discord, the
love notes fell mute. From the shadowy window-seat a tall figure had
risen and come forward: eyes, ablaze with anger, were fixed upon her
from a white and threatening face.

“Aunt Rosamond! …” stammered the girl, too much startled to do
anything but sit and stare.

“How dare you?” said Lady Gerardine, in a low voice, hardly above a
whisper indeed, but charged with intense anger. She walked up to the
piano and stood looking a second at the altar-like arrangement; then her
eyes returned to Aspasia, who now blushed violently, guiltily, in spite
of an irrepressible childish desire to giggle.

“You shameless girl!” said Rosamond. “How dare you! What have you to
do with him?” She took up the picture. “He is mine,” she said, “mine
only!” Then, holding it clasped to her breast, she swept from the room.

“Upon my word!” said Miss Aspasia. “Good gracious goodness me!”
Resentment got the better of amusement; her cheeks were flaming scarlet,
she struck a series of defiant chords, as a sort of war cry in pursuit
of the retreating figure. “Shameless girl, indeed; I’ve as much right
to him, by this time, as anybody else, I should think. In heaven
there’s no marriage or giving in marriage … and, if it comes to that,
what about Runkle then?”

She plunged into the noisiest, most dishevelled Wagner-Liszt piece of
her repertory; crashed, banged, and pounded till the staid old
manor-house seemed to ring with amazement, and the exasperated player,
with flying hands, loosened hair, empurpled countenance, and panting
breath, could hardly keep her seat in the midst of her own gymnastics.

Henceforth there was one room in the manor-house without its presiding
picture. And, opposite Rosamond’s bed, where the tender child’s face
had once watched the mother’s slumbers, the soldier now looked down
sternly and sadly upon the wife.