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"Grannie, darling," said Joyce with an agonized look at Tweedledum.
"She don't hear," said Lady Crowborough, "who could hear through that lot of cushions and veils. And what I say to you, Joyce, I'm going to say to him."
Joyce grew suddenly grave.
"Oh, indeed, you mustn't do anything of the kind, Grannie," said she. "Why how could I look him in the face, and have a moment's ease with him, if I thought you had?"
Lady Crowborough's face smiled all over.
"Very well, then," she said. "I don't want you not to look at the face. But you take my advice, Joyce. Lord, if I were seventy years younger I'd take it myself, in less than a jiffy. You make up your mind you're going to have him and let there be no nonsense about it. Mercy on us all, girls get red in the face and look away, and think one's a shocking old woman, when one advises them to do exactly what they want to do. You keep all the stuff about the moon and poetry till afterwards, my dear. It'll serve to talk about then, only I expect you'll find you've plenty else to say. He's a nice clean clever young fellow, with a good head and a good heart, and they're not too many of that sort going about. Lord, you should have seen all the girls and women, too, staring at him yesterday at the picture-show. I thought somebody would catch him up and marry him under my very nose. They'll be at him now like wasps round a jam-pot. But you get in first, my dear, and we'll put the lid on. Well, here he comes! Don't you look shocked. I've talked very good sense. You haven't got a mother, but if you had she'd tell you just the same, with no end of beautiful words scattered about like the flowers on a dinner-table, just to hide the victuals as she always did. But the victuals are there just the same: it wouldn't be much of a dinner without 'em."
Any intercourse, flippant or nugatory, or concerned with what Lady Crowborough summed up under the head of the "moon and Mr. Browning's poetry" is sufficient cover for the hidden approach of two souls that are stealing towards each other; any channel sufficient to conduct the conveyance of such streams; and when not long after, Lady Crowborough left them to go indoors to make her salutations to Philip, and get out of the "nasty damp draught" that was blowing up from the river, it was under the most insignificant of shelter that they crept nearer, ever nearer. But, for they talked over the happenings little and not so little, that concerned them jointly in the past, it was as if they gathered in the store that should so soon burst the doors of its granary, or sat telling their beads in some hushed sacred place before it blazed out into lights and music and banners… All this was below, as leaven secretly working, on the surface a boy and girl by the Thames-side talked as comrades talk with laughter and unembarrassed pauses.
"Wonder if it'll be a June like last year," said Charles, sliding from his chair onto the grass. "I was camped up there, half a mile away, for three weeks of it and there was never a drop of rain.Oh, except one night for half an hour: it smelt so good."
"I know: the best watering carts in a dusty street," said she. "You were doing that picture of the weir and your brother."
"And then one afternoon you punted up with Craddock. And that's how it all began."
"All what?" asked Joyce, knowing he could give only one answer, but longing for the other answer.
"My career, large C," said Charles with pomp. "He came and bought the picture next morning. I couldn't believe it at first. I thought – I thought he was a fairy."
"Mr. Craddock does not answer my idea of a fairy," said Joyce after a little consideration. "Oh, you left out about Reggie – isn't he Reggie? – trying to make an omelette, and succeeding only in producing a degraded glue."
"I don't think I noticed that," said Charles, looking at her.
"No, you were staring at us as if we were all fairies. Oh, but you did notice it. It made you laugh, and me too."
Charles went back to a previous topic.
"No, strictly speaking, he isn't a fairy," he said. "At least not completely. But it was a fairylike proceeding. Oh, yes, grant him something fairylike. He got me the commission to copy your Reynolds, and he started me on my feet, and believed in me. I found him a fairy for – for quite a long time."
"Of course there are bad fairies as well," said Joyce, conceding the point.
"Yes: do you mind my asking you one thing? Did you ever – "
"Of course not," said Joyce. "What on earth do you think of me?"
"But you don't know what – "
"Yes, I do. I never, never believed one word. Does that show you? Talk about something else. I don't want to be sick on such a lovely evening."
Charles relapsed into laughter.
"Isn't it so distressing on a wet day?" he asked.
"No. Do you know, I think what he did to father about the picture wasn't nearly so bad. That only made me feel rather unwell. Have you seen him since you knew about it all?"
Charles made a little conflagration of dry leaves with the match he had just lit before he answered.
"Yes, once or twice," he said. "I'm rather ashamed of not having seen him oftener. I believe he was sorry, and if people are sorry – well, it's all over, isn't it?"
"What a painfully noble sentiment," said Joyce. "But I don't think I should caress a scorpion, however grief-stricken. Besides, how can you say that it's all over, just because a person is sorry. He has become, to you, a different person if you find out he has done something mean, something – something like that. Not that I thought very much of Mr. Craddock before," she added.
"Well, I did," said Charles.
"Don't bias me," said Joyce.
She was silent a moment.
"In a way an injury done to oneself is easier to forgive than an injury done to somebody else – " she began.
Charles rudely interrupted.
"Painfully noble sentiment?" he enquired.
"Yes: perhaps it was. Let us be careful: we might die in the night if we became more edifying."
"And the real point is that Mr. Craddock's little plot didn't come off," said he. "At least that seems to me the most important thing."
For a moment their eyes met, and for that moment the huge underlying reality came close to the surface.
She smiled and nodded her assent to this.
"Leave it there," she said … "and then, where were we? O, yes: then you came to copy the Reynolds. Up in my room, do you remember? And dear old Buz lay on the sofa and got worse and worse?"
She leaned back in her chair so that he could not see her face.
"Oh, what a coward I was!" she said. "I knew there was only one thing I could do for him, poor darling, and yet I let you do it instead of me."
"Well, there was no delay," said Charles. "It was done."
"Oh, but you understand better than that," she said. "It was I who failed: now that's a thing hard to forgive oneself. I loved Buz best: it was my privilege to help him in the only way possible. Yes, I know, the thing in itself was nothing, just to press a syringe. But there was the principle behind it, don't you see – of course you do – that I threw love's right away… And I don't believe I ever thanked you for picking it up, so to speak. But I was grateful."
Charles' little conflagration had burned itself out.
"Poor Buz!" he said.
Joyce sat up.
"He didn't have such a bad time," she said, "though why I expect you to be interested in Buz I really don't know. But I've confessed. I always rather wanted to confess that to you – Penance?"
"I think a turn in the punt might do you good," said he, "especially if I take the pole."
That, for the present, was the end of anything serious. Charles exhibited the most complicated incompetence, as regards propulsion, though as a piece of aquatic juggling, his performance was supreme. Joyce told him how to stand, and like that he stood, and the juggling began. He thrust his pole into the water and it stuck fast: he pulled hard at it and the punt went a little backwards, but a second wrench landed a chunk of mud and water-weed on his trousers. He pushed again, this time with so firm and vigorous a stroke that they flew into mid-stream, and only by swift antic steps in the direction of the stern did he recover balance and pole. Once again he pushed, this time in unfathomable water, plunged his arm up to the shoulder in the astonished flood, and fell in an entangled heap of arms and legs on the top of the stupefied Huz.
"Are we going up or down the river?" asked Joyce.
Charles looked wildly round: the bows of the punt seemed if anything to be pointing down stream.
"Down," he said.
The punt thought not: it yawed in a slow half circle and directed itself up-stream.
"That is down-stream, isn't it?" said he … and they slowly slid into the bank.
A swift circular motion began, and a fool-hardy swan coming within range narrowly escaped decapitation. Then Lady Crowborough, having made her visit, appeared at the edge of the lawn, and Charles rashly promised to pick her up… But they moved westward instead into the crimson pools of reflected sunset. Joyce had never ached so much in all her healthy life.
Yet even these inanities brought them nearer… Love has a use for laughter.
Six months ago on an evening of gale and autumn storm, when the chimneys smoked and the rain made fierce tattoo on the streaming window panes, Joyce had gone up to her bedroom leaving her father and another guest together, and had felt some wild prim?val instinct stirring in her blood, that made her long to go out alone into the blackness and hurly-burly of the streaming heavens, to be herself, solitary and unencumbered by the presence and subtle silent influence of others. And to-night, when she and Lady Crowborough left Philip and Charles talking together – Philip's cold had miraculously almost, encouraged by eucalyptus, vanished altogether – she again felt herself prey to the same desire. But to-night, it was no pall of streaming blackness that drew her, but the still starry twilight, and the warm scents of spring. But now, even as then, she wanted to be alone, hidden and unsuspected in the deep dusk of the star-shine, to wander through the fresh-fallen dew in the meadows, to finger the new leaves on riverside willows, to lie, perhaps face downwards in the growing hay-fields, to listen to the mysterious noises of the night, to learn – to learn what? She did not know, or at any rate did not formulate the answer, but it was something that the dark and the spring-time were ready to tell her: something that concerned the Spirit of life that kept the world spinning on its secular journey, and made bright the eyes of the wild creatures of the wood, and set the rose a-budding, and made in her the red blood leap on its joyous errands… Surely, somehow, in the dark of the spring night she could link the pulse that beat in her with the great indwelling rhythm of the world, make herself realise that all was one, she and the singing-bird whose time was come, and the rose that tingled on its stem with the potential blossoms.
She had taken off her dinner-dress and put on a dressing gown, and now, blowing out her light, she went across to her open window, drew up the blind and leaned out into the night. And then in a flash of newly-awakened knowledge, she was aware that she wanted to be alone no longer. She wanted a teacher who also would learn with her, one more human than the star-light, and dearer to her heart than the fragrant hay-fields. But leaning out into the dark, she was nearer him than in the house, and she opened her heart … it stood wide.
Just below her the gravel path that bordered the lawn was illuminated by the light that came in yellow oblongs of glow from the long windows of her father's study. She heard some little stir of movement below, the sound of voices dim and unintelligible inside, and presently after the tread of a foot-step on the stairs and so along the passage past her room, where her father slept. Then the window below was thrown open and Charles stepped out onto the gravel. Like her, perhaps, he felt the call of the night; she wondered if, like her, he needed more than the night could give him. She could look out without risk of detection: from outside, her window would appear a mere black hole in the wall. He paused a moment, and then strolled onto the dewy lawn. And as he walked away towards the river, she heard him whistle softly to himself, the song he had sung last year to his guitar. "See the chariot at hand here of Love…"
Joyce lay long awake, when she got to bed, not tossing nor turning nor even desiring sleep, but very quiet with wide open eyes. She did not seem to herself to be thinking at all, it was no preoccupation that kept her awake: she but lived and breathed, was part of the spring night. But it seemed to her that she had never been alive till then. Sometimes for a little while she dozed, nonsense of some sort began to stir in her brain, but the drowsy moments were no more than moments. From the stable-clock not far away she heard the faint clanging of the hours and half-hours, which seemed to follow very rapidly, the one after the other. By her dressing-table in the window there came a very faint light through the unblinded casement from the remote noon-day of the shining stars, the rest of the room was muffled in soft darkness.
Then she missed the sound of one half-hour, and when she woke again, the light in her room was changed. Already the faint illumination by the window had spread over the rest of it, and there was a more conspicuous brightness on the table that stood there. Then from outside she heard the first chirruping of one bird, and the light grew, a light hueless and colourless, a mere mixture of white with the dark. More birds joined voices to the first heard in the earliest welcome of the day, and a breeze set some tendril of creeper tapping at her panes. Colour began to steal into the hueless light; she could guess there in the East were cloud-wisps that caught the morning.
Joyce got out of bed and went to the window, and the lure of the sunrise irresistibly beckoned her out. The message the night had seemed to hold for her, though contradicted afterwards, had been authentically transmitted to the dawn – something certainly called her now. She dressed herself quickly in some old boating-costume, went quietly along the passage, and down stairs. At the foot Huz was sleeping, but awoke at her step, and found it necessary to give a loud and joyful bark of welcome. It seemed to him an excellent plan to go out.
She crossed the lawn with her dog, for the river seemed to beckon, and would have taken her canoe, except that that meant that Huz must be left behind. She did not want Huz, but Huz wanted, and she stepped into the punt, that puzzled victim of Charles' aimlessness, and pushed off. The boom of Thorley Weir – that, or was it something else about Thorley Weir – determined her direction, and she slid away upstream. It was still not yet the hour of sunrise, and she would be at the weir before that.
A few minutes before, Charles had wakened also. He, too, had slept but little, and his awaking was sudden: he felt as if some noise had roused him, the shutting of a door perhaps, or the barking of a dog. The early light that preceded dawn was leaking into his room, and he got out of bed to draw up the blind. The magic of the hour, breeze of morning, chirruping of birds seized and held him, and into his mind – brighter than the approaching dawn – there came flooding back all that had kept sleep from him. Sleep was far away again now, and the morning beckoned.
He dressed and went out, and it was in his mind to wrestle with the punt, perhaps, to spring on Joyce a mysteriously-acquired adeptness. And then suddenly he saw that steps had preceded him across the lawn, wiping away the dew, and his heart leaped. Could it be she who had passed that way already? Would they meet – and his heart hammered in his throat – in this pearly and sacred hour, when only the birds were awake? It was not quite sunrise yet; should day, and another day lit by the dawn that from everlasting had moved the sun and the stars, dawn together? But where had she gone, where should he seek and find her?
The punt was gone: the canoe lay tapped by the ripples from the mill-stream. Right or left? Down stream or up? Then the boom of Thorley Weir decided him – that, or something else, some quivering line that she had left to guide him.
The imperfect chirrupings were forming themselves into "actual song"; on the smooth-flowing river reflections of the blue above began to stain the grey steel-colour, and the willow leaves were a-quiver with the breeze of morning. He hardly noticed these things as he plied his paddle round bend and promontory of the stream. Louder sounded the boom of the outpoured weir, and the last corner was turned, and on the spit of land where a year ago his tent had been pitched stood Joyce.
She had just tied her punt to the bank and stood looking up towards the weir itself. Huz was by her and hearing the splash of the paddle, turned and waved a welcoming tail that beat against Joyce's skirt. At that she turned also, and saw him. But she gave him no word of welcome, nor did he speak to her. In silence he ran the boat into the soft ground beside the punt, and stepped ashore. He had left his coat in the canoe and came towards her, hatless like herself, bare-armed to the elbow.
She looked at him, still silent, yet flooding him with her self, and his own identity, his very self and being, seemed to pass utterly away from him. He was conscious of nothing more than her.
"It had to be like this," he said… "Joyce, Joyce."
Still she did not answer, but, quivering a little, bent towards him, as a young tree leans before the wind. Then her lips parted.
"Oh, Charles," she said, "have you come to me? I was waiting for you."
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