His eyes sank before hers

Full winter seemed to have come in a night; everywhere rime lay white
upon the land, every blade was a frosted silver spear. Not a leaf yet
kept the summer green; shrunken, brown and yellow, they hung by their
brittle stems; it was a still morning, and he who had ears to listen to
nature sounds, all through the woods could have heard ever and anon the
sigh of one, falling here and there. A dim blue winter sky held the
world; the sunshine was serene and faintly warm, like the heart of a
good old man. The air was like iced wine to drink, invigorating,
tingling through the veins. It painted Aspasia’s cheeks a splendid
scarlet. It filled her with the spirits of all young things, foals and
kittens and cubs; so that she could hardly keep from prancing down the
iron path, from cutting steps on the stiff grass to hear it crackle
beneath her feet.

As Bethune looked at her, he thought she was as pretty as a winter robin
in her brown furs. Her eyes glistened as she flung quick glances at
him; her dimples came and went; her teeth flashed as she chattered at
headlong speed. They were going to Sunday service at the village
church, a couple of miles away, and Baby was setting forth with a
delightful sense of vigour and freedom.

Those whose fate binds them to cities can have no idea of the delicate
joys of the country walk, with the beloved one—him or her—who fills the
thoughts. Alas! for the poor wench that has no better pleasure than to
tramp along the crowded street. What does she know of the loveliness of
“solitude for two,” of the dear sympathy of nature, perfect in every
season with the heart that is of her clay?

Not, indeed, that Miss Cuningham acknowledged even to herself that
Raymond Bethune was the present lord of her mind, much less her beloved.
Nevertheless, the glamour of that hour that strikes but once in a
lifetime was upon her. Love, first love, the only love, comparable but
to the most exquisite mystery of the dawn, of the spring; happiness so
evanescent that a touch will destroy it, so delicate that the scent of
it is obliterated by fulfilment; so utterly made of anticipation, of
unrealised, unformed desire, that to shape it, to seize it, is to lose
it—is it not strange that we, to whom such a gift is granted, receive
it, nearly all of us, not as we should, on our knees, but grossly,
greedily, impatiently, ungratefully, hurrying through the golden
moments, tearing apart the gossamer veil, grasping the flower from the
stem before its unfolding? No wonder that to most the day that follows
on this dawn should be so full of heat and burden; the fruit of this
blossom so sour to the parent that the children’s teeth are set on edge;
that, behind the veil, the vision should prove dull, flat, and
unprofitable!

Now Aspasia, though a very creature of earth and one that knew no
transcendental longings, had kept the pure heart of her childhood; and
therefore this hour of her first love, all vague, all unacknowledged,
was wholly sweet.

They knelt, Bethune and she, side by side, in the small bare church.
She flung him a look of comical anguish over the grunting of the
harmonium and the unmelodious chants of the village choir. She struck
into a hymn herself, in a high clear pipe, as true as a robin’s song. A
pale young clergyman, with protruding eyeballs, led the service with a
sort of anæmic piety; grand old Bible words were gabbled or droned;
grand old Church prayers, with the dignity of an antique faith still
resounding in them—who, that heard, seemed to care? It was the Sunday
routine, and that was all.

Bethune saw the girl’s fingers unconsciously practising musical
exercises on the ledge of the pew; when their eyes met once, she made a
childish grimace. She, for one, was frankly bored. As for him, had he
any faith? He had hardly ever thought even of putting the question. He
went to the Church service of his country as a matter of course, as his
grandfathers had done before him. It was part of the etiquette of his
military life. Now and again he had been moved to a solemn stir of the
feelings during some brief soldier’s ceremony: the hurried funeral
perhaps of an English lad far away from homeland. But so had he been
moved by the bugle-call, by the hurrah on the field. Life and death,
love and religion, what did they mean? What are we, when all is said
and done, but the toys of a blind fate?

There is but one thing sure in the uncertainty, he told himself, but one
staff in the wilderness, one anchor in the turmoil—duty.

The damp-stained wall at his side was starred with memorials. He began
to contemplate them, idly at first, then with an enkindling interest.
Here was an old stone slab commemorating, in half-obliterated words,
some son of a Dorset house who had died for the country in far
Peninsular days. “In the twentieth year of his age.” A young
existence, to be thus cut short! Yet, had he lived, and given life, his
own sons would now be well-nigh forgotten.

Under this was a black marble tablet. The blood rushed to his face as
he read, and then ebbed, leaving him cold:

To THE MEMORY OF
CAPTAIN HENRY ENGLISH,
OF HER MAJESTY’S INDIAN STAFF CORPS,
KILLED ON SERVICE IN THE PAMIRS. AGED 28.

Thus ran the sober inscription; followed the text, more triumphant than
sorrowful:

He that loseth his life shall find it.

And then the words:

THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED BY HIS MOTHER.

Behind him, by just turning his head, he could see another memorial. A
plate of flaming brass, this one; large, for it had to hold many names,
and very new. It was scored in vermilion tribute to those
yeomen—gentlemen and peasant—who, at the first breath of disaster, had
hurried overseas from the peaceful district to uphold the mother country
in a point of honour and had found quick honour themselves. In a little
while these blood-red letters, too, would fade, but not so quickly as
the memory of grief in the hearts of those who had sent their lads off
with such tears, such acclamations. Bethune thought to himself, with a
bitter smile, that there was not one of the churches dotted all over the
wide English land where some such brand-new memorial had not been nailed
this last year, and how, Sunday after Sunday, the eyes of the
congregation would sweep past it, with ever-growing dulness of custom,
until the record came to mean no more than the grey stones of the walls
themselves. No less quickly than England, the moment of peril past,
forgets those who rose to her call and fell for her name, does the
thought of the brother, the comrade, the son, pass from the home circle!
Not that he pitied the forgotten; not that he wished it otherwise with
his country. It was well for England that her sons should think it a
matter of course to give their lives for her. And it was what he could
wish for himself, to die where his duty was, and be obliterated. Who,
indeed, should remember him who had no ties of kinship and had lost his
only friend? … Who should be remembered when Harry English was already
forgotten?

His lips curled, as he flung a glance along the aisles and wondered if
any heart, under these many-coloured Sunday garments, still beat true to
the lost lover; nay, how many comfortable widows had already brought a
second mate to worship under the tablet that commemorated the first?
Hold! yet the mothers remember—this was the church where Harry English
had worshipped, beside his mother, the grand tender silent woman whom
Bethune, too, had loved: the mother who had been alone, with himself, to
mourn!

When he had set out on his way this morning he had been moved by the
thought that to kneel where his friend had knelt was the last and only
tribute he could pay that memory. The mountain torrent had robbed them
of his grave; but in the shrine which sheltered his tablet, in this
church of a communion that had rigidly severed the old fond ties between
the living and the departed, no service could yet now be held that would
not be in some sort a commemoration.

As the thoughts surged through his mind like wreckage on the waves of
his feelings, he seemed to go back, with a passion that almost had
something of remorse, to his old sorrow for English and to his old
bitterness against the woman who had put another in his comrade’s place.

In vision he placed the two men before him: Harry, stern, eager, true,
with his rare beautiful smile—eagle of glance, clear of mind, unerring
of judgment, swift of action; Harry English, the unrecognised hero of
the deep strong heart; he whose courage at the crucial moment had
maintained the honour of England; who, in saving the frontier
stronghold, had, as Bethune knew, saved India from gathering disaster!
And Sir Arthur Gerardine, the great man, with his fatuous smile, his
fatal self-complacency, his ignorant policy. Sir Arthur Gerardine, in
his high place, working untold future mischief to the Empire with inane
diligence. Bethune almost laughed, as he pictured the
Lieutenant-Governor to himself, one of the many of his order, busy in
picking out stone by stone the great foundations planned by the brains
of Lawrences, cemented by the blood of Nicholsons.

And yet, this Rosamond Gerardine, who had borne the name of English,
could not be dismissed merely as one who, light-natured, had found it
easy and profitable to forget. Sphinx, she had haunted his thoughts
that Indian night as he had walked back from her palace, carrying with
him her image, white and stately in the flash of her diamonds and the
green fires of her emeralds … the great lady, who knew the value of
her smiles and gave the largess but with condescension. Sphinx she was
even more to him now, whether hurrying from her walk to receive him,
wide-eyed in the firelight, with the bloom of a girl on her cheek and an
exquisite gracious timidity; or wan in her black robes—widow, indeed, it
seemed—drinking in with speechless tenderness of sorrow every memory of
the lost friend, as if no Sir Arthur Gerardine had ever stepped between
her and her beloved.

Was this attitude but a phase of a sick woman’s fancy, to be dropped
when the mood had passed? Was not, in truth, Lady Gerardine in this
freakish humour as false to Sir Arthur, who had given her affluence and
position, as she had been to him who had given her his love and faith?
Deep down under his consciousness there was a little angry grudge
against her that she should not have accompanied them this morning.
Were she now sincere, she would have felt the same desire as he himself
to pray where the walls heralded Harry English’s name. Bethune did not
know, so little do even the most straightforward know themselves, that
had she knelt by his side to-day it would have been perilously sweet to
him: that had her footsteps gone with his along the frosted roads
between the brown hedges, that way, to him, would have remained in
fragrance as with a memory of flowers.

“Didn’t you think,” asked Baby, “that Mr. Smith—his name is Algernon
Vandeleur Smith, he’s the curate—didn’t you think his eyes would drop
out of his head? They make me feel quite ill!” They were walking down
the flagged churchyard path, and Baby was stamping her small cold feet.
She was talking in a high irate voice, regardless of hearers. “Did you
ever listen to such a sermon?”

She opened her bright eyes very wide and made a fish-like mouth in
imitation of the Reverend Algernon: “And now, brethren, shortly,
briefly, and in a few words, not wishing to detain you longer, I will
endeavour to set before you with conciseness and brevity.”—She was a
born mimic, and had caught the dreary young divine’s very intonation.

Bethune had no laugh for her: his heart was sore. For once the girl’s
mood jarred on him.

She was quick to feel the shadow of his thoughts. The dimple went out of
her cheek, the spring from her step. The icy brilliancy of the day
seemed suddenly dim to her. The walk before them, towards which she had
been yearning with delicious anticipation, became instantly a grey
project, a weariness.

This gossamer of early love—it needs but a breath of adverse wind to
tear it apart and set it afloat in forlorn shreds, mere flecks to the
caprice of the airs; it that has been a fairy bridge for the dance of
the sunbeams! For a long while they trudged together in silence. But
all at once, Bethune looking down upon her was smitten, not by any hint
of her dawning sentiments towards him, but by the consciousness that he
must have seemed surly towards a mirthful child.

“God knows,” he thought heavily, “the world gets sad enough, soon
enough, to make it shame to cloud even one moment for the children.”
Himself, he felt old and sad, and miles away from her happy youth.

“So silent?” said he, turning upon her that softened look she loved.

She glanced up at him, forcing a smile, but over her frank eyes there
was a wet shimmer which she winked away indignantly. Once again, as on
that Indian evening when he had seen Lady Gerardine fit her slender hand
into the death-prints of the burnt queens, it struck him that here, in
this open-hearted, sweet-natured, gay-spirited girl, a man might find a
companion for life to help and comfort—a piece of charming, wholesome
prose, but …

Raymond Bethune, in his lonely isolated life, had had dreams—dreams that
his temper had been too narrow, too severely matter-of-fact, to bring
into any connection with his actions. He had dreamed his dream as he
had read his book of poetry, to lay it aside without a sigh and take up
the moment’s duty, as one lays aside a flower, a thing of fragrance, a
passing pleasure, which has no further influence on life.

Now this woman, whom he despised, who had outraged the deepest feeling
of his life, had become, in some inexplicable manner, the embodiment of
these inconsequent dreams. Her deep eyes, shadowed with sorrow as the
tarn by the mountain height; the trick of her sigh, the balm of her rare
smile; the melody of her voice, those low tones that seemed as charged
with mystery as the wind by the whispers of the forest depths, all were
as

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faëry lands forlorn….

She was a vision of poetry that could be lived, that could become part
of a man’s very flesh and blood!

Of a sudden he realised it. His heart gave a great leap and then seemed
to stand still; but the habit of years and the hard common sense of his
nature asserted themselves in violent reaction. He coloured to the
roots of his hair in shame at the monstrousness, the absurdity of the
thought, to which his idle dissatisfied mood had led him.

The girl saw his emotion and innocently attributed it to quite another
cause; connected it with the expression of his glance when it had rested
upon her. The song awoke once more in her heart, circling higher and
higher like a June lark. Renewed joy began to bubble from her lips in
laughter and talk.

When they emerged from the copse to the top of the downs, where the road
dipped into the hollow, she halted, with an exclamation.

“See,” she cried, “the grass looks all gold and silver! And oh! did any
one ever behold anything so pale, pale, so blue, blue as the sky! Oh!
isn’t this better than India; don’t you love it; wouldn’t you like to
put your arm round England and kiss her?”

“England, the mother; India, the mistress,” thought Bethune. Then, at a
maddening tangent flight, his mind took wing. The words of Dr.
Châtelard came back upon him. “Cold, that woman? Touch that coldness
and be burnt to the bone!” He revolted from his own soul as it flamed
within him. He would have liked to set off running across the frozen
downs to that far violet line where washed the sea; to have plunged into
the icy waves, into the bitter turmoil of the living waters, to wash the
degrading madness from him.

Aspasia’s fresh laugh brought his spirit back to her with a renewed
revulsion.

“Look, look,” she cried once more, “there’s Muhammed’s turban going up
and down, and up and down, the garden path! I wonder what he’s thinking
of? Not Runkle’s monumental work, I’m sure. Ugh! I declare it’s
uncanny only to look at that absurd turban in this winter land. It’s
bad enough to have Jani chattering about the house like a human
castanet, without having that creature tramping up and down outside the
window, day after day. Major Bethune, I wish you’d speak to the
creature—and find out what he is up to. I never saw anything so
restless in my life.”

“Oh, we’ve had several conversations,” answered Bethune, following with
his eyes the movement of the red head-dress in the distant hollow.
“That is to say, I have done a lively bit of talking to him, and he has
given me mighty polite answers and said nothing at all. Those fellows,
Miss Aspasia, are queer cattle, proud as Lucifer, secret as the tiger in
the jungle. That one down there, however, is of the modern school—a
sort of animal I don’t profess to understand, but one, at any rate, I
should not care to trust, myself. Sir Arthur would have done just as
well to have left him in India.”

“Gracious!” cried Aspasia. “Lord!” Her mind sprang: “Perhaps he’s
after Runkle! Oh, Major Bethune, you know what a mess poor Runkle is
making of things out there; I shouldn’t like him to be thugged! I
always told him he was laying the seed of mutiny,” said Miss Aspasia,
with tragic emphasis.

Bethune gave his rare laugh.

“Muhammed Saif-u-din would hardly have come over all the way to England
to make his private mutiny when he could accomplish the matter with more
kudos in India, and have a good chance of saving his own skin besides.”

Aspasia shook her head, preferring to cling to her own dramatic
inspiration.

“Well, I’ll give Runkle a warning, anyhow,” said she. “There’s
something fishy about Muhammed. You may laugh at me, if you like; but
the man is eaten up with some secret thought, some sinister thought.
There’s a look in his eyes that makes me shiver. And when he
smiles—ugh! I do hate Easterns.”

He glanced at her reflectively, then he smiled. Such a sentiment from
any one else would have aroused his indignation; but it was impossible
to take Miss Aspasia Cuningham’s hatreds with seriousness. Only this
morning he had seen her half strangle a protesting Jani in vehement
embrace.

“And as for Aunt Rosamond,” went on the girl, comfortably, “it upsets
her even to see the wretched being. That’s the reason we keep him to
the orchard, you know; her windows look out on the front. I had to tell
him—it was an awful moment; he was so hurt and so grand. Then I
explained it was on account of poor Captain English, you know. Oh, you
know…!”

“Do I?” asked the man, with a faint raising of the brows.

“Well, if it amuses you to pretend you don’t,” she snapped back.
“Anyhow, Muhammed did. He may be a cut-throat, but there’s something of
a gentleman about it. He put his hand on his heart and bowed. ’The Lady
Sahib’s wishes are sacred,’ he said. And I’ve seen the poor thing hide
behind a tree when she is coming. Rather touching, don’t you think?”
said the inconsequent Baby.

“Did Lady Gerardine ask you to speak to Muhammed?”

“No. Why do you want to know that?”

“Mere idle curiosity,” he answered, striking at a gorse bush with his
stick and watching the melted rime fly out in spray.

“If you knew Aunt Rosamond better, you’d understand she’d never say such
a thing as that. She keeps everything close. But we all know she does
not want to be reminded of things.”

He threw back his head with his mirthless laugh.

“Even I know as much by this time, Miss Aspasia. It is perhaps a little
difficult for a solitary man to understand you women; but one thing is
quite evident: you never do anything heartless or selfish … except
from excess of feeling.”

He could not keep the sneer from his tone, and Baby’s quick temper was
instantly aflame.

“You never have a good word for Aunt Rosamond,” she cried; “but you need
not include me in your judgment, I think!”

Bethune laughed again, harshly.

“I am very hard on Lady Gerardine, am I not?” Then fixing his eyes upon
her, broodingly; “and, as for you, I hope——”

He did not finish the sentence. But to her reading, his glance needed
no word. She grew rosily shy and ran on ahead to hide it.

“Well, I love the Eastern,” said the man, abruptly going back to the
origin of the dispute. “He’s my trade. He will be the death of me one
of these days, no doubt. But what of that? Does not the sailor love
the sea that will swallow him. And besides, if they weren’t always an
uncertain quantity, where would be the spice of life out there? One
might as well be in a broker’s office. But I don’t like your
westernised Eastern,” he said, with a change of tone, and took a first
long step upon the downward way.

Aspasia skipped on before him.

“Well, we’re a pretty queer lot down there, in the Old Ancient House,”
she cried, in her high merry pipe. “What with the Thug plotting—I know
he’s a Thug, whatever you may say, and I know he’s plotting,” she gave
her companion a challenging blink of her bright eye; “and what with
crazy old Mary, who’s lived so long in this old hollow that she’s
positively part of the timber and plaster of the house, and can hear the
very stones talk. By the way, she’s more creepy than ever now, and
swears that her pet ghosts are walking with extra vigour. And what with
Jani, running about after Aunt, with her dog eyes and poor chattering
teeth! Nothing will ever make me believe that Jani has got a soul. And
then, my poor aunt herself, with her hyper-what-you-call-’ems, and
Runkle bombarding her with telegrams which she don’t even notice, and
which I have to answer as best I may. I say,” said Aspasia, stopping
reflectively, “there will be a fine row, I tell you, soon! For if I
know Runkle, he’ll pounce, one of these days. And Aunt Rosamond; well,
you see for yourself what she is just now. Positively there’s only you
and I that are sane.”

She sprang on again, to look back at him over her shoulder and laugh
like a schoolgirl.

His eyes sank before hers. Could she but have guessed on the brink of
what ignoble madness he—the sane man—was standing!

“How rosy you look!” said Lady Gerardine.

“I’ve been driving Major Bethune in the cart. And the pony went like an
angel on four legs,” said Aspasia. “I suppose the wind caught my face.”

She pressed the back of her hands to her cheeks, as she spoke, and her
eyes danced above them. It was the rose of happiness and no evanescent
wind bloom that glowed in her innocent childish countenance.

Women’s glances are cruelly quick to read the tender secrets of each
other’s souls. Lady Gerardine’s look hardened as she still fixed the
girl; her own wounded inconsequent heart was suddenly aflame with anger
against her. Not a fortnight ago had Aspasia been setting flowers
before the portrait of Harry English and offering, in passionate love,
melodies to that mystic presence. And it had been sufficient that this
Bethune’s everyday substantiality should show itself, for the fickle
creature to change allegiance. She had dared to think she loved Harry
English, and now she dared to desecrate this love!

They were in the drawing-room waiting the summons for lunch. Bethune
had not yet appeared. With an air of embarrassment very foreign to her,
Baby tossed off her hat and coat and moved restlessly to the piano. She
wished pettishly, to herself, that her aunt would stop staring. But
nothing could drive the lustre from her own eyes and the upward tilt
from her lips. She had had such a lovely drive over the wet downs; they
had watched the scolding, stamping squirrel in the hazel copse. His
dark face had brightened so often. His gaze had rested on her so gently
now and again. When he got down to open the wicket gate for her he had
gathered a little pale belated monthly rose from the bush at the side,
and had given it to her. She would always keep it, always…. Her
fingers strayed unconsciously over the keys from one harmony to another.
They fell into a familiar theme—the Chopin Prelude, with its sobbing
rain-beat accompaniment. She forgot Lady Gerardine and her dry hostile
tones, her cold violating look. Following the strong pinions of her
art, her young emotions had begun to beat tentative wings, when she was
brought down to earth, as once before, very suddenly and with no
pleasant shock.

“Whom is your music addressed to now, Aspasia?” asked Lady Gerardine,
leaning over towards her with folded arms on the piano.

The musician’s fingers dropped from the notes.

“To nobody that belongs to you!” she cried rudely, with a flare of
schoolgirl anger. Her face crimsoned.

Lady Gerardine’s gaze was filled with a lightning contempt. She
straightened herself and looked at the empty space on the wall, where
Harry English’s portrait had hung.

“In truth,” she said, “my dear, you don’t take long to change.”

Her voice was scornful.

Quite taken aback and in a hot rage, Aspasia bounced up from the
music-stool. But before a coherent word could relieve her, Major
Bethune came in upon them.

When her anger had somewhat cooled down—never a lengthy process with
Aspasia—she began to feel a sort of wonder at herself. What, indeed,
had become of the pale, gallant ghost that she had set up to worship in
the shrine of her heart? Gone, gone after the way of ghosts, before the
first ray of real sunshine—Bethune’s hand-clasp, his softened glance,
his rare smile. With the realisation of her own fickleness came
another, so overwhelming in its suggestion, that all else was swept away
by it. She was in love! … In love for the first time, really,
unmistakably, Aspasia Cuningham, who had meant to devote her whole life
to her art.

Bethune wondered, in his blundering masculine way, what blight had
fallen in the little dining-room, to render their wontedly harmonious
meeting of the three at meals so constrained that day.

But when, later, Lady Gerardine and her niece found themselves once more
alone, the memory of her curious resentment seemed to have faded from
the elder woman’s mind, to have been erased by a fresh tide of thought,
as footprints on the sands are washed away by the waves.

Old Mary had been with her in the gloaming; old Mary, with her tender
memories of the dead past, her mystic whispers of present hauntings.

“Eh, ma’am, he’s been very near to us, these days,” she said. “Last
night, now, I heard his step come down the passage, as plain, as plain
as ever I heard anything. I always knew his step among a thousand,
ma’am, from a child; a clean, clear step, with never a slur nor a
slouch; not as most people walk.”

“Oh, Mary,” cried Lady Gerardine, a thrill, half exquisite, half
terrible, running through her, “why does he come back now?”

“Why, ma’am, it’s because of you, I’m thinking,” said the old woman,
simply. “You’re just calling him back to you.”

“Oh, Mary!”

“Does that frighten you, ma’am? Doesn’t it make you glad? Why, the
other evening, they had not lit the lamps yet in the hall, and I felt
him pass me—his own presence, just as I feel yours there. Nothing of
the grave, of the cold about it, but warm, comfort—Heaven’s warmth. Oh,
God is good, ma’am! He makes all easy.”

“God is good,” said Rosamond to herself, weighing the words, as she sat
alone. “Is God good?”

And within her some voice of truth answered her: answered that God had
been good, even to her; had meant well with her; very well, even in her
bereavement, could she but have taken His ruling as these women of
Harry’s old home.

Thus, when she was found by Aspasia, there was no room in her heart for
any lesser thought.