Part 1— Chapter I.
They were seated together at the breakfast-table, a handsome, bored-looking man of thirty-three, and a girl of twenty-six, whose dress of a rich blue made an admirable touch of colour in the dim, brown room.
The house had been designed in the period when shelter from the wind seems to have been the one desired good, and was therefore built in a dell, from which the garden rose in a rapid slope. Today the house would crown the head of the slope, and the dell be relegated to a retreat for occasional hot afternoons; the breakfast-room would face east, and the sun stream in through wide bay-windows, from which fact the spirits of the occupants would benefit afresh with each new morn. As it was the light filtered dimly through mullioned panes, and the oak panelled walls gave back no answering gleam. Curtains and carpet alike were of dull neutral tints, and the one bright spot in the picture was the blue dress of the girl, who sat behind the coffee urn.
Was she beautiful? Was she merely pretty? Was she redeemed from plainness only by a certain quality of interest and charm? At different times an affirmative answer might have been given to each of the three questions in turns; at the moment Katrine Beverley appeared just a tall, graceful girl who arranged her hair with a fine eye for the exigencies of an irregular profile, and who deserved an order of merit for choosing a dress at once so simple, so artistic, and so becoming.
Martin was enjoying a breakfast menu which he sturdily refused to vary. Year in, year out, through dog days, and through frost, the same three courses formed his morning meal. Porridge—the which he ate barbarously with sugar, instead of salt,—bacon and eggs, marmalade and toast. The appearance of the same dish at the dinner-table twice over in a fortnight would have evoked complaint and reprisals, but he would stand no tampering with his breakfast. The Times and the Morning Post lay beside his plate. He glanced at the headlines in the interval between porridge and bacon. Nothing going on! It was the dullest of all dead years.
Katrine was nibbling daintily at fruit and cream. For the moment a fruitarian craze was in full swing, and she shuddered disgustedly at the thought of bacon, refusing to view it in its crisp and rashered form, and obstinately harking back to the sty. In a few months’ time she would probably be discoursing learnedly of the uric acid in fruit, and seriously contemplating a course of “Salisbury.”
When the maid entered the room with the morning’s letters and the young mistress turned over her correspondence with white, ringless hands, the discovery that she was not the wife of the man at the head of the table would have come to an onlooker less as a surprise than as the confirmation of a settled conviction. These two people had not the air of a married couple. As individuals they were more calmly, amicably detached than it is possible to be in that closest and most demanding of relationships; moreover, family likeness betrayed itself in curve and line, and in a natural grace of movement.
Brother and sister, alone in the dim old room, while from three different points of view the same pictured face looked down upon their tête-à-tête. From above the mantelpiece a painting; from the bureau, a photograph printed in soft sepia tones; from the bookcase a snapshot in a round black frame. All over the house the same face looked down from the walls, for Katrine saw to it that no room was without a pictured presentment of the young mistress who had reigned for one short year over the dim old house. In the first days of loss her heart had ached with an unbearable ache, not so much even for Martin himself, as for that other girl who had enjoyed her kingdom for so brief a reign. Poor, pretty, fair-haired child! there was something inconceivably shocking in the thought of Juliet dead. In life she had played the part of an irresponsible toy, born to be petted, to be served, to be screened from every touch of care; her very marriage had been treated in the light of an amusing joke. It was impossible to think of Juliet becoming middle-aged and responsible. She was a flower of a day, and her day had passed with startling, with horrible rapidity.
Martin had been stunned by his loss. He was but twenty-five at the time of his marriage, and had found no difficulty in turning into a boy again to make merry with his girl wife. As the months passed by, he had, it is true, shown signs of a growing restiveness, born of a desire for something more stable than everlasting frivoling, but before the restiveness had had time to culminate, a sudden wind had swept the delicate flower, and after a few days of agonising fear, the soul of Juliet had fled, leaving behind a still, majestic mask, which even to the husband who loved her was a strange and awesome thing.
Eight years ago! The colour was fading from the photographs. The fair face with the large eyes and small open mouth was growing more and more cloudy and indistinct, but as soon as her attention was directed to the fact, Katrine had industriously ordered new copies from the old negative, and distributed them about the house, waiting complacently for her brother’s recognition.
It never came. No word or glance betrayed Martin’s knowledge of the change. Even yet, Katrine reflected, even yet, he could not bear to refer to the past! In his heart he was grateful, no doubt, but his tongue could not speak. Juliet’s name was never mentioned between them. A blank wall of silence was drawn over that short, eventful year during which she had passed meteor-like across their path. So far as Katrine herself was concerned, grief had long since evaporated, but she reminded herself constantly that for Martin it was different. Martin’s sorrow was for life.
Eight years ago, when she was barely eighteen, he had come to her, white and haggard, and had spoken a few unforgettable words:
“You are the mistress now, Katrine. We are alone together, and I—and I shall never marry! Do as you please in the house. I shan’t interfere; I shall never care enough to interfere. My life is over.”
He believed what he said; they both believed it, the girl of eighteen and the youth of twenty-five, and alone in her room Katrine, who had never kept in the same mind for a month together, made, with sobs and tears, a life-long vow. Loyalty to Martin! faithfulness, devotion, unending patience and tenderness to Martin of the broken heart, and the broken, ended life. In the hour of his agony he had turned to her, and she would never fail him. It would not be easy; Martin had not always been easy to understand even in the good old times; now he would be sad, irritable, unresponsive; she would have to expend herself, and to expect but little appreciation in return. She told herself warmly that she wanted no thanks, all she wanted was to help. Incidentally, also, she herself could never marry, but as a mere school-girl, free as yet from any consciousness of sex, she accepted that privation with youthful calm. She would have her own house, her own place in the world; a life-work worth doing, and which no one but herself could undertake. She entered upon it with a serene content.
Eight years ago, and here they were still, sitting at either end of the breakfast table, with Juliet’s face looking down on them from the walls; the same people, living the same lives, looking practically the same, for life goes slowly in little English towns, thinking the same thoughts. Well! practically the same—poor Martin’s outlook, of course, was unchanged, Katrine decided, but for herself, when one was twenty-six… She heaved a sigh, straightened herself resolutely, and glanced at the letters by her plate.
They were three in number; a coroneted missive in white and gold, a pale violet envelope edged with a line of a darker shade, and bearing a dashing monogram upon the reverse side, and lastly, a bulky epistle with an Indian stamp.
“Nice mail!” exclaimed Katrine appreciatively, as she glanced over her budget. “Some one told me yesterday that the invitations for the Barfield Garden Party were out, and I felt a qualm in case ours had been overlooked. Here it is, however, safe and sound. Tuesday, July 9. Over six weeks! What a fearsomely long invitation! I do love that afternoon at Barfield; it is a very zoological garden of lions. If they could only be labelled, how interesting it would be! You will come with me to Barfield, Martin?”
“Oh, I suppose so. Possibly. If nothing happens.” Martin Beverley’s voice hardly echoed his sister’s gratification. He spoke with the air of a man laboriously anxious to be agreeable, but his lifted eyes held no sparkle of light. Then they fell upon the violet envelope, and he spoke again:—
“From Grizel, is it not? What has she to say?”
Katrine laughed with light amusement.
“The usual Grizel! Nothing whatever that’s worth repeating. I often wonder why I write to her at all, for her replies are nothing but a paraphrase of my own letters. This one for example. She is sorry it was wet for the picnic; she is glad you are enjoying your golf; how nice it is that the garden is looking so well! She echoes all my sentiments and thoughts, but”—Katrine’s lips curved with laughter, “in her own way! It’s just the Grizel touch which transforms the whole. Little wretch! she can make even a paraphrase charming.”
Martin helped himself to another slice of crisp brown toast. His sister’s description of her friend’s letter had not been enthralling, nevertheless his eyes dwelt upon it with a persistence which was easily understood. Martin wanted to read Grizel’s effusion for himself. Katrine was perfectly aware of the fact, but a latent obstinacy, for which she would have found it difficult to account, prevented her from granting his desire. There was nothing whatever in the letter which could interest a grown man. She persistently looked the other way, waiting in silence until he should speak again.
“Are you going to ask Grizel for the Barfield Garden Party?”
Katrine looked up sharply, her tell-tale face betraying the fact that the suggestion was not to her taste.
“Grizel! To Barfield. I never thought of it. Why should I?”
“She would enjoy it. She hasn’t been here for some time.”
Katrine looked down, and drummed on the table impatiently. A moment before she had been decidedly pale; now there was a suspicion of temper in the quick reddening of her cheeks. Her lips were pressed together as though to keep back impetuous words, but before the pause had time to grow serious, she had put another question, with an air of elaborate calm:
“Do you wish her to be invited?”
“Well!” Martin Beverley waved his hand carelessly, “it was a suggestion. I thought you might be glad of her company, and Grizel can always be trusted to turn herself out well. She would do you credit.”
“Oh, clothes! I was not thinking of clothes,” Katrine pushed back her plate, and fidgeted impatiently with her cup and saucer.
“Of course it is your house. If you wish—”
A fragment of toast broke off sharply at a twist from Martin’s fingers. There was a moment of strained silence, then he said suavely:—
“Let us say then that I do not wish! It’s too hot to argue—and even if the house is—ostensibly—mine, I have no wish to force your own friends upon you. You don’t want Grizel. Very well! There is no more to be said. I’ll have some more coffee. It’s particularly good this morning. This new woman of yours makes it better than the last. What are you going to be about to-day?”
“Oh nothing! The usual thing. Pottering around.”
As Katrine filled up the cup she reflected that it would be easier to deal with Martin if he would let himself go occasionally, and say what he meant. These self-contained people made one feel such a brute, and exacted so heavy a penitence for a slight offence! She ought not to have made that remark about “your house,” it had been intended to annoy, and it had annoyed. The vigorous snap of those strong fingers had not passed unnoticed, but Martin had controlled himself, and poured coals of fire on her head; she had been not only forgiven, but besought to take her own way, had received into the bargain a sop to her housekeeping pride. A right down good scolding would have been less difficult to bear!
“Oh, the coffee! It’s not the making. I paid sixpence more. The grocer’s bill will be bigger than ever this week,” she declared perversely. To herself she was saying irritably: “I will not be stroked down! Why should Grizel come? It wouldn’t be half so much fun. I should be obliged to stay with her, and introduce her to every one who came up, and come home when she liked.—I go out so seldom that on a special occasion like this, I want to consider myself! She’ll never expect—”
“Your other letter is from the faithful Dorothy, I suppose?”
“Yes.” Katrine’s hand instinctively covered the grey envelope, her glance softening to a smile. “She never misses. It is not once in a year that I have a blank mail.”
“What on earth does she find to say?” Martin Beverley’s voice betrayed a decided impatience. Now that the subject was impersonal he had evidently relaxed his guard. “You must have heard all there is to hear about her surroundings, years ago, and there can be precious few happenings in life out there. Of course in your case it is different!”
“Life being so thrilling in this giddy vale!” Katrine was rebellious once more. “Martin never realises how dull it is for me! It’s just because we have both so few outside interests that Doll and I count so much on our letters. I believe Martin considers that life here is quite full and satisfying, and has not the least idea of how monotonous it is, or of how much I give up.” She let her mind ponder on the episodes of the last month, feeling an increasing glow of satisfaction in the remembrance of her own sacrifices. A week’s invitation refused because Martin would have been left alone; a musical evening abandoned at the last moment because Martin’s head ached; two whole evenings devoted to sleepy bridge, when she had wished to play tennis. No one could say that she was not the most devoted of sisters! Martin had not even heard of that first most tempting invitation; she had refused it without a word, denying herself the meed of thanks and appreciation. Katrine felt that a special laurel wreath was due to her for that fact alone;—every time she recalled her own silence, she was thrilled anew with content. Dozens of invitations she had refused for the same reason during the last six years! She might certainly be allowed to enjoy her few pleasures after her own fashion!
Suddenly her mood changed; her eye rested upon the tiny coroneted sheet, and her previous elation died into distaste. What did it amount to after all—this gala day of the season? A tiresome cross-country journey, or, as an alternative, a long motor drive, tiring and costly; a crush of smart celebrities making merry among themselves, while the country folk stared from afar, avoiding each other at the beginning of the afternoon, but in the end glad to meet, to compare notes, quiz and admire, and so mitigate the growing loneliness. And it was to this that she and her neighbours looked forward for weeks at a time, preening themselves on the invitation received, or smarting beneath its omission! What volumes it spoke of the flatness of life in a country town! How tired, how tired, she was of it all! How she thirsted for a change…
“Has Dorothea never suggested that you should pay her a visit?”
Katrine started violently. The question leapt out at her suddenly as if in continuation of her own thoughts. She gave a short, light laugh.
“Dozens of times! Years ago. She doesn’t mention it any longer now that she realises that it is impossible.”
“Martin! What would become of you?” The note of pained surprise in Katrine’s voice was very real, but her brother refused to treat it seriously.
He shrugged his shoulders, and smiled an easy smile.
“Oh, I should rub along. I might get in a working housekeeper, or I could take a room in town. I might work better for a change of scene. If you would like to go—”
“I shouldn’t like anything which left you alone. It would not be worth going for less than six months, and I couldn’t possibly do that. I am of some use to you, Martin!”
This time the appeal was too direct to be ignored and the response came readily enough.
“A very great deal. You have managed admirably, but it is possible to be too unselfish. If you would like a change—”
Katrine drew in her breath with a sharp inhalation. “Like it!” like to spend months with Dorothea and Jack Middleton! Like to have the experiences of that thrilling voyage, past the Bay, past Gib., along the Mediterranean, through the Canal to the glowing East! Like to see India, with its riot of sun and colour, after six long years in a sleepy country town! It would require an infinitely stronger word to give an indication of the passionate longing which filled her heart. But to Katrine, as to most people, the big sacrifice was less difficult than the small, and all that was noble in her nature rose to meet the strain. A week’s recreation denied had left a sting which had found vent in captious mood, but she had long since buried the great desire. It was only the hopeless inadequacy of that word which had stung it into life. Like!
Martin was watching her intently across the table. There was a hint of anxiety in his face which touched a sensitive chord in Katrine’s heart. He needed her! She was all he had left. Unselfishness had prompted the suggestion, but it had cost him dear. Impulsively she bent towards him, her face a charming mingling of tenderness and fun.
“Dear man! It’s noble of you, but it’s no use talking. I—am—not—to be budged! My place is here, and here I remain. In September you will be off shooting, and then I’ll take a trot around. One does want to get out of Cumly sometimes. But I’ll come back in time to have home ready for your return.”
Martin nodded absently. He made no further protestations one way or another, and Katrine in her recovered complacency did not miss their absence. The marmalade stage was reached and approaching a conclusion before he spoke again, to ask a new and unexpected question:
“How old is it that you are now, Katrine? Twenty-three, twenty-four?”
“Twenty-six!” corrected Katrine with a grimace. “I’m a woman growed. Getting most horridly old.”
“Nonsense, nonsense!” Martin brushed aside the suggestion, but a moment after contradicted his words with a suggestive: “Still, it’s getting on.—Of course you realise, Katrine, that if ever there is any talk of marriage, you mustn’t let me—I must not interfere.”
The girl’s lips twitched. Ever any talk! Blessed innocent! did he suppose that no one had ever—? What would he say if he realised that she had already dismissed two solid, eligible suitors, who had laid before her feet not only themselves, but their not inconsiderable worldly goods, pointing out to each in gentle, sister-like fashion that her life work was already fixed. Apart from the pain which she had been obliged to inflict, the incidents had afforded Katrine real satisfaction. It was pleasant to know that some one had cared! When one grew elderly and fat, it would be satisfactory to remember that one had remained an old maid not of necessity, but from choice. It was true that no self-denial had been involved in rejections, but this was a point over which memory skimmed lightly. However sorely she had been tempted, Katrine was satisfied that her answer would have been the same.
“Thank you, dear,” she replied demurely. “I’ll remember. But there aren’t so very many chances here, are there? I counted up the other day, and found that there are just twenty-six eligible and attractive girls within a radius of three miles, and exactly three and a half young men. The half is represented by Edgar Bevan, who comes home for the week end. I don’t wish to exaggerate, so I’ll confess that there are also three widowers!”
Katrine’s look was full of a shocked surprise.
“Martin! How can you! Three and a half bachelors, and the widowers. But one widower has a fine car. He might almost be counted as two! Even so, it leaves a considerable margin. My own chance, dear brother, is but one to five!”
They laughed together, but Martin appeared to ponder the subject, and to find it disconcerting.
“That’s so; no doubt it’s so. The young men gravitate to the towns. It’s hard on the girls.”
“Oh, we are happy enough!” The very acknowledgment of the hardship seemed for the moment to remove its sting. “So far as I am concerned, if they all arrived in a body and sat in rows on the hearthrug waiting to propose (which they show no immediate signs of doing, by the bye!) I would not look at one. You and Dorothea are all the sweethearts I want.”
“Well!” ejaculated Martin Beverley vaguely. “Well!” He pushed back his chair and strolled over to the window, drawing a cigarette case from his pocket as he went. Every morning of his life he took up this position after breakfast, smoked a regulation cigarette, presumably digested the morning’s news, and thought out his plans for the day. Katrine was accustomed to the sight, but this morning something in the pose of the figure attracted an uneasy attention. The shoulders drooped, the whole attitude bespoke weariness, a lack of purpose.
Martin Beverley stood in the alcove of the window, and the light shining through the upper panes left his figure in the shade, and fell full upon the pictured face above the mantel—the fair young face with the unending smile. The scene might have been taken as the motif for an artist’s picture, portraying the desolation of a widowed home. Katrine’s quick sensibilities grasped its significance, and her heart contracted with sympathy. “Juliet! Juliet!” she sighed to herself. “The old ache; the old pain!” but in truth Juliet might never have existed, for all the part she played in her husband’s thoughts at that moment. Martin Beverley was passing through that trying stage in the life of an author when he casts about in his mind for the plan of a future book, and can find no satisfactory response. Three months ago, when his last manuscript had been despatched to the publisher, he had acclaimed his liberty with the zest of a schoolboy released from school, had found it sheer joy to wake in the morning to the expectation of a lazy day, but now the holiday mood was fast turning into unrest; the creative instinct had awakened from its sleep, and its voice would not be denied.
Imaginary characters flitted before Martin’s brain, he lived with them, carved out their lives. In a flash of enthusiasm he saw the completed whole, and found it the finest thing he had yet achieved. From time to time he wrote out notes; sketched out the first few chapters, then reading them over, fell once more into the trough of despair. A day or two of restless wanderings, and he would begin again, and again would follow the check, the discouragement. He had lived through the same misery with each fresh book which he had written. Experience had proved that in this instance it was indeed the first step which cost, that once fairly afloat his characters would grow in reality, and in inexplicable fashion would take the reins in their own hands, and work out their own destinies, but where, since the beginning of the world, is the artist to be found who can be comforted by common-sense while floundering in the valley of discouragement?
This morning for Martin Beverley had begun badly, and breakfast, instead of being a time of refreshment, had left him feeling still more jarred and dreary. Mentally he laid the blame upon Katrine’s shoulders. There was no denying the fact that Katrine was getting upon his nerves. For the first few years of their lives together all had gone well; he himself had been too bruised, too sore, to take more than a passing interest in life; and she had been but a young and malleable girl; now at the end of eight years he was awake once more, while Katrine was a woman of twenty-six, and, it was no use denying that the home atmosphere was out of time. Katrine was a clever housekeeper, careful and considerate of his comfort, she was also handsome, capable, and affectionate, yet the bitter fact remained that the tête-à-tête was beginning to jar, and an unspoken friction to shadow the air.
Martin was grateful for the help which his sister had given him, he tried persistently for self-control, yet in the recesses of his mind the question was growing daily more insistent: “How long could he endure the present manage?”
An intolerable longing possessed him to break loose from the chains which cramped his life, and to start afresh, free and untrammelled. For the moment the very presence of his sister in the room seemed more than he could bear. He turned on his heel, and walked quickly from the room.
Categories: English Literature