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He found, and was not ill-pleased to find, that Lady Crowborough was not in residence, but had gone back to town, where she was accustomed during the winter months to hermetically seal herself up, in the manner of a hybernating dormouse, in a small dark house in Half-Moon Street. But he found when the subject of Egypt was mentioned at dinner, that she had gone to town principally in order to supply herself with linen frocks and veils that should thwart the freckling powers of the Egyptian sun.
"My dear mother," said Philip, as he passed the port to Craddock, "has got it into her head that she would like to accompany Joyce and me, and when she has got any plan of any kind in her head, Joyce and I find it useless to protest. She does not listen to any arguments, nor does she reply to them. She carries out her plan. I do not entirely applaud this one. As likely as not it will be I who will have to look after her, for I am sure she will find the journey and the heat very trying. And as I planned this expedition with a view to regaining such measure of health as may be possible for a confirmed invalid, I do not quite applaud her resolution. But as I say, she is quite indifferent to applause or its absence. Sometimes I think that old people tend to become a little selfish."
He frowned slightly, as he poured himself out the water with which he was to facilitate the entry of his after-dinner cachet.
"And she will expect Joyce to be with her, and read to her and look after her," he continued, "and I shall be companionless. Shut up and condemned to an invalid life, as I have been, I find it difficult to think of anybody who might accompany us, and relieve me of the solitude which will so largely be mine. But the world in general and even one's friends, soon forget an invalid like myself. But certainly I should like, now that my mother has settled to come with us, a further addition to our party."
Philip was sufficiently astute to observe others, when he was not entirely absorbed in himself, and as he looked at Craddock now, it seemed to him that there was a certain suggestion of expectancy of tension even about him: in fact he had raised his wine-glass from the table, as if to drink, but sat with it poised, neither drinking nor replacing it.
"If only I could induce you to come with us," he said.
Craddock put his glass down.
"I think if you had not suggested that," he said, "that I should have risked a rebuff and done it myself."
He paused a moment.
"Only one thing might have deterred me," he added, "namely the fear that my presence, after what happened when I was here last, might be distasteful to Miss Joyce."
Philip waved this away with his thin white hand.
"I know that the young are often very selfish," he said, "but I do not believe that Joyce would for her own sake wish to deprive me of so congenial a companion, even if your suggestion was well-founded. But I am sure it is not.Indeed, I think your being able to come with us is a very fortunate circumstance for her, and, if I may say so, for you, as well as for myself. She will have ample opportunities for knowing you better, and appreciating you more truly. Shall we go into the next room? Ah, by the way, since you will now be seeing about your journey and your hotel accommodation in Egypt, perhaps it would not be troubling you to make arrangements for us also. My mother I know will take a maid, who will look after her and Joyce. I cannot afford a similar luxury."
The rain and gale that had clamorously wept all day, had vastly increased at nightfall, and when the two men left the dining-room they found Joyce sitting in the drawing-room with open windows in the attempt to clear the room of the smoke that had been blowing down the chimney. This rendered the room impossible for her father to sit in, and since his own sitting-room was in no better plight, Joyce was despatched to see whether her room, which was on the other side of the house and sheltered from the fury of the wind, was more tenable. Her report was favourable, and her father, coughing and feeling sure that this quarter of a minute's exposure to the open window of the drawing-room had chilled him, went upstairs with her, leaving Craddock to look at the copy of the Reynolds which hung in the dining-room. He had had dusky glimpses of it during dinner, but now when he examined it by a fuller illumination, the execution of it amazed him. Not only was it faithful in line and colour but in that indefinable quality of each which marks off the inspired from the merely intelligent copy. There was the same gleeful mystery in that turned and radiant face … it was as if Charles no less than the painter of the original picture had known this entrancing girl, had penetrated by his artistic insight into the joy and vitality that enveloped her. And how like she was to Joyce!
He was swift to see, and the picture did not long detain him, but on his way upstairs he very sincerely congratulated himself on the tide in his affairs that was proving so fortunate. "Easter Eggs" he already counted as a gold-mine, three pictures of Charles', one of them that admirable portrait of his mother, were enviable possessions, and there was the winter in Egypt, and the golden possibilities which it contained already his own. He determined, or almost determined, to give Charles the hundred pounds which he had received from his customer, in payment for the copy made of the Reynolds, instead of the fifty he had promised him. He could easily say that Mr. Ward had been so delighted with it that in a fit of altruistic generosity (seeing that the copy was not his) he wished to make a larger remuneration. Charles would be so ingenuously grateful, and Craddock liked gratitude and ingenuousness. They contained the elements of security.
Joyce gave him a charming welcome to her room; she had just heard from her father that Craddock would join their party.
"It is delightful that you will come to Egypt with us," she said. "A party of four is the ideal number."
There was an absence of the personal note in this, which Craddock, as he caressed the side of his face, did not fail to observe.
"Quantitatively, then, we are all right, Miss Joyce," he said. "But is the latest addition qualitatively satisfactory?"
Joyce wore raised eyebrows and a slightly puzzled smile at these polysyllabic observations. But it is probable that she understood very well.
"It is delightful that you are coming," she repeated.
Craddock might have attempted to get a more personal welcome than this, but at the moment his very observant eye caught sight of a small framed sketch that stood in the circle of lamplight on the table. Instantly his attention was diverted there, nor was it only his artistic attention that was thus captured, for in a glance he saw that this sketch concerned him in ways other than artistic. He put out his hand and drew the picture more immediately under the light, unconscious that he had not even acknowledged Joyce's repeated speech of welcome.
There she knelt in Charles's sketch, on the carpet of forget-me-nots at the water's edge. Her head was turned as in the Reynolds picture, to face the spectator, while her body was in profile. It was possible enough that Charles had begun this water-colour replica of her head from the Reynolds itself, but there were differences in it, subtle and insistent, that showed beyond all doubt that the girl had sat to him for it also. She was engaged, as to her hands, with a white blot of a tea-cup; the dish-cloth which she held in her other hand was green with reflection from the bank beside her which basked in brilliant sunshine. Behind was the weir with its screen of trees, above, a dab of blue was sufficient – neither more nor less – to indicate the serenity of the summer day. Critic to his finger-tips Craddock could appreciate, none better than he, the slenderness of the means employed to portray these things, and the adequacy. No one but a great artist would have dared to omit so much: the foreground of forget-me-nots was two mere swirls of paint, the weir a splash of brown with a smudge of grey to indicate the shadowed water, while a mere twirl of the brush showed the swift current of the river. But in the midst of these mere symbols and notes of colour was her face, and that was a marvel of portraiture, into which an infinity of care was absorbed. Of the same quality were the vague lines that showed the girl's slim body: it was she and no other who knelt among the forget-me-nots. And it seemed to Craddock that just as none but a son could have painted that portrait of Charles' mother, so none but a lover could have painted this. He saw the difference between Joyce and the Reynolds picture now; previously he had only seen the marvellous similarity. But here the blood and heart-beat of the artist throbbed in the exquisite handiwork.
But his artistic sense took the first call on his faculties.
"But a little masterpiece!" he said. "I have never seen a happier moment. That's an inspired boy!"
Philip just shrugged his shoulders at this admiring explosion.
"Ah, that little picture of Joyce," he said. "It has always seemed to me rather sketchy and unfinished. But if you admire it so much, I am sure Joyce would be delighted to let you have it."
Joyce turned quickly to her father, and for the first time Craddock saw her troubled and disturbed.
"Oh, father, I can't possibly," she said quickly. "Mr. Lathom gave it me – "
She broke off short, and her face and neck were flushed with the blood that sprang there. Then bright-eyed and rosy as the dawn she turned to Craddock.
"It is a clever sketch, isn't it?" she said. "And all the background is only three dabs and a smudge. I suppose they happen to be put in the right place. He did it one afternoon when Granny and I were having tea with him."
She gave him a few seconds more for looking, and then quickly held her hand out for it, and replaced it on the table. Then she baldly and ruthlessly changed the subject.
"I don't think you have even been up here before, Mr. Craddock," she said. "It was my nursery once, as the rocking-horse and the doll's house witness, then my school-room, as the time-table of lessons above the chimney-piece witnesses, and please let it now become your smoking-room and light another cigarette. Now do tell us about Egypt. I know darling Granny will want to stop in Cairo, and go to every dance and dinner-party."
The new topic effectively diverted her father from the channel concerning Charles and his sketch, for he was always more ready to talk about things that concerned his own comfort than any topic which was unrelated thereto. But a week in Cairo, before going up the Nile to settle down for a month's sunshine at Luxor, was not unreasonable: if Lady Crowborough desired more Cairo, there was, of course, no cause why she should not indulge herself to any extent in its pleasures and festivities. But she would be obliged to indulge herself alone: the party whose sole object was the pursuit of health for Philip, could not be expected to hamper their guest. Joyce had no inclination, so he assumed then, for gaieties like these; the temples of Karnak were much more to her mind…
Joyce left the two men before there was any sign of the discussion growing lukewarm, and went to her bedroom. This was on the other side of the house fronting the full bugling of the gale, and the maddened tattoo of the rain on her panes. It was impossible in this onslaught of elemental fury to open her windows, but she felt in the very bones and blood of her a longing for the out-of-doors, whatever its conditions. Up and down her room she walked, strangely and unwontedly excited, and had she obeyed her impulse, she would have put on a cloak, and let herself out of the house, to walk or to run, or even to stand in the blackness of the night, and the bellowing of the wind, and feel herself one with the wild simplicity and force of the storm. Better even than that she would have liked to go forth and plunge herself, naked under the hueless night, with the torrent and froth of the weir, to struggle and be buffeted by the furious water, to be herself and nobody else, not anybody's daughter, not anybody's companion, not even his with whom her soul seemed suddenly mated. She had gone out for a drenching walk to this weir only this afternoon, and had leaned over its grey wooden railing, and watched the water in flood over the promontory where a tent had stood. Below her a carpet of forget-me-nots, where she had knelt, and she could have found it in her heart to wade through the foam of the flood to kneel there again, and recapture the first thrill of the knowledge that had come to her then. That unbidden flash of desire had lightened on her but for a second, and she had instantly shoved it away again, slamming the door on it, and turning the key, and shooting the bolts. But it had been there, and to-night as she paced her room, she knew quite well what lay behind the barred doors of her consciousness, and though she had imprisoned it, giving it no bail to go abroad, she was not ashamed of it. It burned there within her, warmly radiant, and though she would not allow herself to see the light of it, she knew it to be there, and secretly exulted in the knowledge.
But she did not directly want to throw it open to herself: just now she only wanted to be herself, as she felt she would be if she could be out in the storm. She did not formulate in her mind the indubitable necessity of unlocking her inmost self in order to be herself. Illogically enough, but with a very human inconsistency, she longed for the conditions that would give her the sense of freedom, of expansion that she demanded, without contemplating that on which her whole freedom was based. Yet she knew well that against which she revolted, from which she longed to escape. In a word, it was the fact, and the implication founded on that fact, that Arthur Craddock was coming to Egypt with them. Coupled with it was the idea, so cursorily introduced by her father, that she should give Craddock the sketch that Charles had made of her. Literally, no expedition of ingenuity could have framed a more unfeasible request. There was nothing in the world she could less easily have parted with. And the suggestion was just thrown over the shoulder, so to speak, like an idle question, a meaningless complimentary speech! But now she wondered whether it was only that. Taken in conjunction with Craddock, and his bloodless wooing of her, she felt it was possible that this was in the nature of a test-question. Was it? Was it?
Once more for a moment she desired the night and the storm and the waters of the swollen river; then, instantly, she knew that all this was but a symbol of the knowledge that burned behind the closed and barred door of her mind. She seemed to have no volition in the matter: she but looked at the doors, and they swung open, and the light that burned within was made manifest. She ceased from her restless pacing of her room, and with a little sigh of recovered rest sat down at her dressing-table, and unlocked one of the drawers. It was empty but for a couple of letters addressed to her. They were quite short, and nearly quite formal. But they filled the drawer, and they filled everything else beside.
She read them.
There was nothing here that the merest formalist might not have written … only a man formalist would not have written it.
She took out the second letter.
There was nothing here that anybody might not see. But Joyce would not have shown those letters to anybody. She felt she would have shown his heart no less than her own in showing them. And for comment on the text, if any were needed, there was his sketch of her. That was how he saw her.
All restlessness had utterly subsided: she had only been restless as long as she had wanted to be herself, without admitting to herself all that was most real in her, as long as she shut up the bright-burning knowledge that shone in her innermost heart. Now she had thrown the closed doors wide, and sat very still, very bright-eyed, with the two simple little notes on the table in front of her, desiring no more the air and the tumult of the night, but unconscious of it, hearing it no longer.
Below the drawer where she kept those letters was another also locked. After a while she opened that also, and took out what it contained. Often she had laughed at herself for keeping it, often she had scolded herself for so doing, but neither her ridicule nor her blows had stung her sufficiently to make her throw it away or destroy it. In its present condition it would have been hard to catalogue or describe. But there was no doubt that this shapeless and mud-stained affair had once been a straw-hat. She had found it drowned and pulpy just below the landing-stage of the Mill House the day after Charles had made his sketch of her.
Meantime Arthur Craddock, though glib and instructive in matters of hotels and travel, had been very deeply busy over a new condition that he felt to concern him considerably. Rightly or wrongly he believed that this boy who had painted that wonderful little water-colour of Joyce was in love with her. He could not wholly account for his conviction, but judging intuitively it seemed plain to him. And what seemed no less plain, and far more important, was the fact that Joyce peculiarly valued that sketch. No intuition was necessary here: the trouble and sudden colour in her face when she told her father that she could not possibly part with it, spoke more intelligibly than her words even. Had he known or guessed a little more, had he conjectured that even at this moment Joyce was sitting in her room with those two little notes spread in front of her, while in a drawer, yet unopened, there lurked the dismal remains of Charles' straw-hat, he might have suspected the futility of the abominable interference that he was even now concocting. For little meddling lies have seldom the vitality to enable them to prevail against needs that are big and emotions that are real. Soon or late by logical or chance discovery comes the vindication of the latter, and they assert themselves by virtue of their inherent strength: soon or late, for the air is full of thousands of stray sparks, comes the explosion that shatters such petty fabrications, the chance circumstance that blows it sky-high. But he only thought that he was dealing with the calf-love of a boy whom he had rescued, if not from a gutter, at any rate from a garret, and who was altogether insignificant save for his divine artistic gift, the fruits of which he was bound to sell at so reasonable a price to himself, and with, he supposed, the fancy of a girl who knows nothing of the world, for a handsome young face.
So in this dangerous state of little knowledge, he planned and invented as he talked about steamers and hotels, till even his companion was convinced that the utmost possible would be done for his convenience and comfort. Then, for he was now ready, Craddock took up Charles' sketch again.
"Certainly that young Lathom has a wonderful gift," he said, "and I congratulate myself on having obtained you so fine a copy of your Reynolds. He stayed with you, did he not, when the weather broke?"
Philip glanced at the clock: it was already half-past ten, but he did not mind having a word or two about Charles. Indeed, it is possible he would have initiated the subject.
"Yes, he was with us a week," he said, "though the invitation was not of my asking. He seemed a well-behaved young fellow."
Craddock caressed the side of his face before replying.
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