the bright living presentment

Rosamond Gerardine and Aspasia Cuningham lay back, silent, each in her
corner of the railway carriage, while the English landscape flew by
them, wet and green and autumn brown, gleaming in a fugitive yellow
sunlight.

Aspasia still felt the pressure of Bethune’s unconsciously hard
hand-grip. His image, as he had stood bareheaded looking after the
moving train, was still vivid before her eyes. His last words: “It is
not good-bye,” were ringing in her ears. His face had looked wistful,
she thought; his cold glance had taken that warm good look she claimed
as her own. She was glad it was not good-bye. And yet, as they steamed
away, she, watching him as long as she could, saw, and could not hide it
from herself, that it was upon Lady Gerardine his eyes were fixed at the
last—fixed with an expression which had already become familiar to her.
“One would think he hated her—sometimes,” said shrewd Baby to herself,
“and yet, when she’s there, he forgets me. I might as well be dead, or
a fright.”

This puzzled her and troubled her, too, a little. She glanced across now
at her aunt’s abstracted countenance. “I am sure,” she thought, in
loyal admiration, “if he were madly in love with her, it would be only
natural. But it’s not love—it’s more like hate and a sort of pain.”
With all her sageness, Baby was only eighteen.

How completely had Raymond Bethune passed from Lady Gerardine’s
mind—even before he had passed from her sight!

She had nearly reached the end of her journey. The burning land she had
left behind her—once the land of her desire—seemed now but a place
visited in long evil dreams, where she had undergone unimaginable
sufferings during the bondage of sleep. The humid air of England beat
upon her face through the open window with a comforting assurance as of
waking reality.

She had told herself she was travelling with her dead. Never for one
hour of her long journey had she forgotten the meaning of that box under
Jani’s care. But, with every sunrise that marked a wider distance
between her and India, she drew a freer breath. With every stage she
felt herself less Lady Gerardine, wife; and more Mrs. English, widow.
There was beginning to be an extraordinary restfulness in the sensation.

They sped through the New Forest glades, sodden after the rain, now
flashing gold-brown with that shaft of sun; now black-green, cavernous,
mysterious, where the pines grow close. And then came the moorland
stretches, reaching up to a pale-blue cleft in the storm-weighted
clouds. How cool it all was! How soft the colours! How benign the wet
sky, how different from the metal glare of the land that had betrayed
her!

And, by-and-by, white gleams of sunshine began to deepen into primroses
and ambers; towards the west the sky grew ever clearer, and the leaden
wrack, parting, showed an horizon like to a honey sea against the rising
mists of evening. How beautiful was England!

When they got out at the little country station, in the rural heart of
Dorset, the day was closing in. The vault of the heavens brooded over
the earth with a cup-like closeness. November though it was, the air
struck upon their cheeks as gently as a caress, all impregnated with the
fragrance of wet green indefinably touched with the tart accent of
decay.

Rosamond drew a long deep breath; it had a poignant pleasure in it;
tears sprang to her eyes, but, for the first time in God knew how many
years, there was a sweetness in them. Jani at her elbow shivered with
an aguish chatter of teeth. With one hand she clutched her shawls
across her little lean figure; with the other she held on fiercely to a
battered tin box.

“Oh, Aunt Rosamond,” cried Aspasia, ecstatically, as they got into the
vehicle awaiting them, “it’s a fly, it’s a fly! Aren’t you glad? Do
you smell the musty straw? Oh! doesn’t it bring back good old times?
Don’t you wish you may never sit in a state carriage again?”

It was a long drive, through winding lanes. Sometimes they strained
uphill, sometimes they skirted the flat down; sometimes the branches of
the overhanging trees beat against the roof of the carriage or in at the
open window. At first the whole land was wonderfully still. They could
hear the moisture drip from the leaves when the horses were at the walk.
And, by-and-by, there grew out of the distance the faint yet mighty
rumour of the sea. Within such short measure, then, this small, great
England was meeting her salt limits! Across the upland down, presently,
even on this silent evening, there rose a wind to sing of the surf. The
trees by the roadside, in the copses amid fields, on the crest, etched
against the glimmer of the sky, had all that regular inland bent that
tells of salt winds.

At last the rickety fly began to jingle and jolt along a road that was
hardly more than a track. The way dipped down an abrupt slope and then
branched off unexpectedly into a side lane. Rosamond leaned out of the
window; she felt they were drawing near her unknown home.

“Are we there?” cried Aspasia, entering into a violent state of
excitement as they came to a halt before a swing gate.

Rosamond did not answer. She was looking with all her eyes, with all
her heart. Sudden memories awoke within her—words, never even noted to
be forgotten, began to whisper in her ears: “You never saw such a place,
love. It isn’t a place, it’s a queer old house dumped down in a hollow
of the downs. And the avenue—there isn’t an avenue, it’s a road through
the orchard, and the orchard comes right up to the house—and you never
saw such a bunch of chimney-stacks in your life. But such as it is, I
love it. And some day we’ll go and live there, you and I….” Here,
then, were the orchard trees, twisted shapes, stretching out unpruned
branches to them as they passed!

“I almost plucked an apple,” cried Aspasia, from her side, with a
childish scream.

The sky was rift just about the horizon—the afterglow primrose against
the sullen gloom of the cloud banks. Cut into sharp silhouette against
this pallid translucence, rose the black outline of the house and right
across it the fantastic old-time chimney-stack, at sight of which
Rosamond laughed low to herself as one who recognises the face of a
friend. “You never saw such a bunch of chimney-stacks in your life!…”

A faint column of smoke ascended pale against the gloom where the
chimneys lost themselves in the skies. As Rosamond noted it, her heart
stirred; all was not dead then—the old house, his house, was alive and
waiting for her!

They drew up close to the stone porch, open to the night, flush with the
level of the out-jutting gables, and the driver, plunging into the black
recess, sent the jangle of a bell ringing through inner spaces. In the
waiting pause all was very silent, save the stealthy patter from the
overgrown ivy clumps that hung across the entrance. There was a rustle,
the hop of an awakened bird, quite close to Rosamond’s ear, as she
leaned out with the eagerness that had been growing upon her ever since
her landing.

Then came steps within: the door was opened first but a little space,
with the habitual precaution of the lowly caretaker, then suddenly drawn
wide. A square of light that seemed golden was cut out of the darkness,
and:

“You’re welcome, ma’am,” cried old Mary, tremulously smoothing her
apron.

Lady Gerardine passed with fixed eyes and straight steps into the hall,
but she turned quickly as the words struck her ear. Aspasia, following,
saw her face illumined by a smile that was almost joy. And the girl
became secretly a little alarmed; her aunt’s ways had been all
inexplicable to her of late.

Rosamond’s heart was crying out within her, and it was with actual joy.
“Welcome, ma’am,” had said his servant—to old Mary the mistress of
Saltwoods was Captain English’s widow—even to herself might she not now
cease to be Lady Gerardine for a brief respite? Oh, then would the
manor-house be home indeed!

A great sense of peace, accompanied by a sudden lassitude, fell upon
her; she sank into an armchair, flinging her arms wide with a gesture of
relief. Opposite to her was a sturdy oaken table, upon which the
housekeeper had just placed a hand-lamp. The light fell full upon a
rack displaying a hunting-crop, a couple of rough walking-sticks; above,
there was the sketch of a boy’s face. Her gaze wandered, without at
first taking in the meaning of what it saw.

Noise resounded from the porch; it was Jani, struggling with the
coachman for the possession of the old regimental case.

Rosamond looked quickly up again at the bright living presentment on the
wall; then she rose to her feet and staggered blindly through the
nearest door. There, in sheltering darkness, Aspasia promptly overtook
her, and was terrified, as she clasped her warm young arms round her
aunt’s figure, to find it torn by sobs.

“Let me be, let me be!” exclaimed Lady Gerardine, pushing the girl from
her, “it is good to give way at last.”

And Aspasia, pressing her face in wordless attempt at consolation
against her aunt’s cheek, found it streaming with a very torrent of
tears.

* * * * *

“Ah,” said old Mary, shaking her head, as Miss Cuningham presently
besought her for the feminine panacea of tea, “poor lady, it’s no
wonder: he was a grand young gentleman!”

It was, indeed, evident that here Lady Gerardine could never be anything
but Captain English’s widow.

The manor-house was very old and very solid. It held nothing of any
high value, perhaps, but it held nothing cheap or weak. It was complete
before the days of machine-made furniture and of so-called æsthetic art,
and those that had ruled over it since had been withheld by innate taste
or a happy lack of means from adding to it either within or without.
Thus it had remained at a standstill through an extraordinary lapse of
years, and all was now beautifully, frankly old; it stood in its
simplicity, perfect in antique shabbiness. Only without, the creepers
flung ever new shoots about the sturdy strength of the stones. Only
within, it was haunted by a memory, by a presence; and this presence was
young even to boyhood. And the young ghost harmonised with the aged
house, seemed to belong to it as surely as—year by year—the spirit of
spring to the ancient garden.

Rosamond, whose life purpose had so long been to avoid the haunting of
the past, awoke in the dawn of her first day at Saltwoods to find
herself in a very habitation of memories; nay, more, to feel, in some
inexplicable manner, that the dead were more alive in this house than
the quick, and yet—strange mystery of the heart—that she was glad of it.
She watched the dawn wax as on one memorable morning in her far-off
Indian palace; not here on beetle’s-wing green and eastern glow of
carmine and purple, but upon brown of wainscot oak and dim rosebud of
faded chintz. And, as the lights spread between the gaps of the
shutters, there grew upon her from the panelled wall a strong young face
with bold wide-open eyes—eyes very young, set under brows already
thoughtful. A very English face, despite the olive of the cheek, the
darkness of the hair, close-cut, that still had a crisp wave under the
cock of the Sandhurst cap.

“I felt I was not alone,” said Rosamond, half in dream, supporting
herself on her elbow to look more nearly, “and so it was you!”

But the eyes were gazing past her, out on life, full of eagerness. And
the close lips were set with a noble determination. What great things
this boy soldier was going to make of his future!

Rosamond let herself fall back upon her pillows, something like a sob in
her throat. Then, opposite to her, between the windows, she met full
the glance of the same eyes that had but now avoided hers. They were
child’s eyes this time, gazing, full of soft wonder, out of a serious
child’s face, framed by an aureole of copper curls—the wonderful tint
that is destined to turn to densest black.

Rosamond stretched at ease, resting her eyes on those of the lovely
child’s—childless woman, who had never desired children, began to
picture to herself how proud a mother would be of such a little son as
this. And then her mind wandered to the mother, who, lying where she now
lay, had feasted her waking heart and gratified her maternal pride, so
many mornings with this vision.

Then something began to stir in her that had not yet stirred before; an
inchoate desire, an ache, a jealousy; yes, a jealousy of the dead woman
who had borne such a child! She turned restlessly from the sight of the
two pictures, flung herself to the far side of the bed, and sent her
glance and thought determinedly wandering into the recess of an alcove
where night still kept the growing light at bay.

A drowsiness fell over her mind again; with vague interest she found
herself speculating what might the different objects be that the
darkness still enwrapt partly from her sight.

Here was a high chair of unusual shape—a _Prie-Dieu_? Here was a gothic
bracket, jutting from the wall above; thereon something glimmered palely
forth; a statuette perchance, or alabaster vase of special slender art?
Nay, not so, for now she could distinguish the wide-stretched arms, the
pendant form; it was the carven ivory of a crucifix. The late Mrs.
English’s shrine, her altar? Rosamond’s interest quickened—she had
heard of this unknown relative’s goodness from the son’s lips, but had
never heard this goodness specified as regarded religion. His mother,
then, had been High Church … Roman Catholic perhaps? Rosamond was
almost amused, with the detached amusement of one to whom religion means
little personal.

Under this impulse of curiosity she rose from her bed, pulled the window
shutters aside to let in the day, and then went back to examine the
alcove.

It held a shrine indeed, an altar to inevitable sacrifice, to the most
sacred relics. Beneath the pallid symbol, figure of the Great
Renunciation, was placed a closed frame. And all around and about, in
ordered array, the records of a boy’s life: medals for prowess in
different sports; a cup or two; a framed certificate of merit; in front
of the frame, a case bulging with letters. Upon each side of the altar
hung shelves filled with books, some in the handsome livery of school
prizes, some in the battered covers of the much-perused playroom
favourite.

Rosamond stood and looked. A moment or two she hesitated, then she
began to tremble. There was within her the old desire of flight, the
old sick longing to hide away, to bury, to ignore. But something
stronger than herself held her. The day was past when she could deny
herself to sorrow. The cup was at her lips and she knew that she must
drink.

She would open that letter-case, she would gaze at the face in the
closed frame; her coward heart was to be spared no longer.

She took up a volume. As it fell apart she saw the full-page book-plate
engraved with the arms of Winchester School and the fine copperplate
inscription:

Anno Sæculari 1884
Præmium in re Mathematica
Meritus et consecutus est _Henricus English_.
(Hæc olim meminisse juvabit).

The life of Christopher Columbus…. It was bound in crimson calf, and
the gilt edges of its unopened pages clung crisply together.

She replaced it on the shelf and, with the same dreary mechanical
determination, drew forth another. The “Boy’s own Book”; a veteran,
this; from too much loving usage, dogs’-eared, scored with small grimy
finger-prints; its quaint woodcuts highly coloured here and there by a
very juvenile artist.

“To Henry English, on his ninth birthday, from his affectionate mother,”
ran the dedication, in a flowing Italian hand. A gift that had made a
little lad very happy, some twenty-five years ago.

And now Rosamond’s fingers hovered over the case of letters. Well did
her heart forebode whose missives lay treasured there. Nevertheless,
the sight of the handwriting struck her like a stab. Not yet could she
summon strength to read those close-marked pages. Nay—were they even
hers to read?

“Darling old Mammy—” this was not for her.

Yet she turned the sheets over and over, lingering upon them. Here was
an envelope, endorsed in the same fair running hand as the book: “My
beloved son’s last letter.” And here, on a card, was gummed a piece of
white heather—memorial of God knows what pretty coquetry between the
stalwart soldier and his “darling old Mammy.”

What things must people live through—people who dare to love!

Rosamond had never loved. Had she not done well? When love offered
itself to her she had been too young to know its face. And now…. She
dropped the case from her hands as if it burnt her, and stood, poised
for flight; then, as if driven by an invincible force, seized upon the
closed frame, almost with anger. Fate held her, she could not escape.

Harry English, looking at her! Not the child, not the adolescent, but
Harry the man as she, his wife, had known him. Even through the
incomplete medium of a photograph, the strong black and white of his
colouring, the bold line of his features, the concentrated purposeful
expression, was reproduced with an effect of extraordinary vitality.

It seemed almost impossible to think of him as dead who could look at
her so livingly from this little portrait.

* * * * *

Old Mary came in hurriedly.

“Here I am, ma’am, here I am! I heard you call.”

Rosamond lifted dazed eyes. It took a perceptible space of time for the
meaning of the words to filter to her brain. Then she said with vague
impatience:

“I did not call.”

“But you wanted me, surely,” said the woman. Her glance wandered from
the portrait in her new mistress’s hand to the disorder on her old
mistress’s altar. “Surely you wanted me, ma’am.”

She took a warm wrapper from the bed and folded it round Lady Gerardine.
She supported her to an armchair and placed a cushion to her feet. The
ministering hands were warm and strong; and Rosamond felt suddenly that
in truth she was cold and weak, and that these attentions were grateful
to her. She looked up again at the withered face, ethereally aged, at
the blue eyes that seemed illumined from some source not of this world.

“Perhaps I did want you,” she said.

A thin, self-absorbed, silent woman was old Mary. She regarded the world
as with the gaze of the seer and moved within the small circlet of her
duty wrapped in a mystic dignity of her own. Some held her in contempt,
as madwoman; others in awe, as having “seen things.”

If the manor-house had the reputation of being haunted, it was doubtless
due to Mary’s ways. No one from the neighbourhood would have consented
to inhabit the ancient place with her. But fortunately Mary had a stout
niece of her own, who averred that ghosts were indigestion, and who
slept the sleep of the scrubber and the just, no matter what else might
walk.

The housekeeper’s strange eyes softened as she looked down into the fair
pale face of her young master’s widow.

“My dear lady that’s gone,” she said, “must be glad to know that there
is another heart keeping watch here.”

Her voice was soft and had a muffled sound as of one used to long
silence. The tone seemed to harmonise with the singularity of the
words. A small cold shiver ran over Rosamond; she stared without
replying.

“The day the news came,” proceeded the housekeeper, dreamily, “she set
up that altar to him. And there she found peace.”

As old Mary spoke, the habit of the trained servant was still strong
upon her. She stooped to tuck in the fold of Rosamond’s dressing-gown
closer round her feet.

“There she prayed,” she went on, as she straightened herself again, “and
then, he came back to her in peace.”

Rosamond closed the frame in her hands with a snap. She felt every
impulse within her strike out against the mystic atmosphere that seemed
to be closing round her.

“What are you saying?” she cried sharply. “In Heaven’s name what do you
mean? Who came back—the dead?”

Old Mary smiled again. She bent over the chair.

“Why, ma’am,” she said, as if speaking to a frightened child, “you don’t
need to be told, a good lady like you: to those that have faith, there
is no death.”

“No death!” echoed Rosamond. “All life is death. Everything is full of
death.”

There was a strangling bitterness in her throat that broke forth in a
harsh laugh. The placid room seemed to swim round with her; when she
came to herself the servant was holding her hands once more. Her voice
was falling into her ears with a measured soothing cadence:

“Not here. There is no death in this house. Don’t you feel it, ma’am?
It’s not death that is here. Why, her that is gone, she passed from me
there, in that bed, as the night passes into day. That is not death.
Not an hour before the summons came for her she was wandering—as the
doctor called it. I knew better. She saw him and was speaking to him.
’Ah, Harry,’ she says, joyful, ’I knew you were not dead.’ And then she
turns to me. ’He is not dead, Mary,’ she says, ’it was all a mistake.’”

Rosamond listened, her pale lips apart, her gaze dark and wondering.

“Why, ma’am,” went on old Mary. “Haven’t you felt it yourself, this
night; didn’t you feel his sweet company the minute you set foot in the
house? I think it was my lady’s great love that brought him back here.
And now that she is gone, he’s still here. And it’s strange, he’s here
more than she is. She does not come as he does.”

Her eyes became fixed on far-off things. Still clasping Rosamond’s hand
she seemed to transmit a glow, a warmth that reached to the heart.
Rosamond’s sick and cowering soul felt at rest as upon a strength
greater than her own.

His company! Was that not what she had felt? Was it not that to which
she had awakened? Ay, the old woman was right: it was sweet!

“There is no death,” asserted old Mary, once again, “no death unless we
make it. It’s our fault if our dead do not live for us; it’s our
earthly bodies that won’t acknowledge the spirit. It’s we who make our
dead dead, who bury them, who make corpses of them and coffins for them,
to hide them away in the cold earth.”

Rosamond wrenched her hands from the wrinkled grasp. She sprang to her
feet, seized by a sudden anguish that was actual physical pain.

“Go, go!” she cried wildly. She was caught up as in a whirlwind of
unimaginable terror. What had she done? Had she laid Harry English in
the grave? Was he dead to her through her own deed, he that had lived on
for his mother? Had she in her cowardice hammered him into his coffin,
and would he always be a corpse to her because she had made him dead?

Through the inarticulate voices of her torment, she heard the door close
and felt she was alone. And then she found herself upon her knees
before the shrine, the photograph case still clenched between her
fingers, praying blindly, madly, inarticulately—to what? she knew not.
To the white Christ on the cross, who had risen from the dead? Or to
the strong soldier whose image she held, and for whom there could be no
rising again?

When the storm passed at length she was broken, chilled, and unconsoled.
Old Mary’s words came back to her: “She prayed there and she got peace.”
Well, the mother may have found peace in prayer. But for the wife,
there was none! “He came back in peace”; he had not come back to her—to
Rosamond, his wife!

A wave of revolt broke over her; against the God who had invented death
for his creatures, or against stupid blind fate disposing of those human
lives that have no God.

She rose slowly to her feet; her glance swept the homely room—the bed
where the mother had died—to end once again upon the altar. What right
had she, the old woman, to lay claim to Rosamond English’s husband? The
babe, the boy, may have been hers, let her have him! But the man—the
man belonged to the wife. “And ye shall leave father and mother and
cleave to one.” “There is authority for it in your very scriptures,”
cried Rosamond, aloud. And, with fingers trembling with passionate
eagerness she set to work to rob the frame of its treasure, the shrine
of its chief relic.

Soon it lay in her hand, the clipped photograph. She carried it away,
from the altar to the window, and stood a long, long while, devouring it
with her gaze. So had he looked. No man had ever bolder, truer eyes.
Ah, and no woman but Rosamond had seen them flame into passion—passion
that yet then had had no meaning for her who saw! And those lips,
folded into sternness, had any one known them to break into lines of
tenderness as they were used for her? None at least, not even his
mother, had heard them whisper what they had whispered to the wife—to
the wife whose ears had been deaf, then, as a child’s, because of her
uncomprehending heart!

What was it old Mary had said? “It is we who make our dead dead.” And
had he lived on in this house because of the love of a withered heart,
and should he not live again for her, his wife who was young and
strong—and still virgin to love?

What she had buried she would dig out of the earth again, were it with
bleeding fingers. That voice should speak once more, were each accent
to stab her with its poignancy of loss. He should live, were it to be
her death.

With dilated nostrils, panting for breath, her hair floating behind her,
beautiful in her thrall of passion like some Valkyrie rising over blood
and death, she rushed to the door and summoned Jani with ringing call.
There is an exaltation of spirit to which pain is highest joy, and
Rosamond ran now to her sorrow as the mystic to his cross.

“Jani!” she called. “Bring me Captain English’s box.”