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   Chapter 16 No.16

This Freedom By A. S. M. Hutchinson Characters: 17168

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

She had not good health in the week immediately following that great day. She did not feel well. She did not look very well. Mr. Simcox, profoundly sympathetic to every mood of her who was at once his protege and his support, told her he thought she had been overdoing it. She seized upon that excuse and tried to persuade herself that perhaps she had; or, which amounted to the same thing, that she was suffering from the revulsion of those huge excitements. But she did not persuade herself. Her malaise, whatever it was, was not of that kind. Its manifestations were not in lassitude or sense of disability. They were in a curious dis-ease whose occasion was not to be defined; in a consuming restlessness beneath whose goad even the significant apartment had not power to charm and hold her; in a certain feverishness whose exsiccative heat, leaving her palms and temples cool (she sometimes felt them and had surprise) caused inwardly a dry burning that made her long for quiet places.

She could not settle to anything. Her limbs, and they had their way, desired not to rest; her mind, and it deposed her captaincy, would cast no anchor.

Mr. Simcox, as the week drew on, suggested a weekend at home. It had occurred to her, very attractively, but she had negatived it. Aunt Belle (before the idea had come to her) had written an invitation to one of the Saturday dinners in which she had "most particularly, my dear child" desired her presence. Something most delightful was going to happen and she must be there. She had accepted and she later told herself she did not like to refuse. She knew, instantly as she read, what was the identity of this delightful thing that was to happen and she decided, with a sharp turn within her of some emotion, that certainly she would be there. To whet her scorn! She was thereafter much aggravated that her drifting mind, against her wish, swayed constantly towards it sometimes with that same sharp turn of that same emotion (nameless to her and without meaning) always with aggravation of her restlessness, of her fever, of her dis-ease. When came Mr. Simcox's suggestion of the week-end at home she decided, as swiftly as she had first accepted, to revoke her acceptance. She would not be there! She would not-waste her scorn!

Impatient for movement, she that evening went to the splendid house in Pilchester Square to tell her withdrawal. This most exasperating dis-ease of hers! Now that she was come to change her mind she did not want to change her mind. It was like going to the dentist with an aching tooth. On his doorstep the tooth does not ache. Her governance of herself was by her malaise so shaken that positively, as she came into Aunt Belle's presence, she did not know whether she was going to withdraw or to confirm her acceptance of the invitation.

Most comfortingly, Aunt Belle saved her the decision. "My dear child! How unexpected! How opportune! I was just writing to you. Our little dinner is put off! Sit here while I tell you. Now would you like anything, dear child? A piece of cake? Some nice fruit? To please me. Really, no? Well, now; our dinner that I so especially wanted you for-did you guess?"

She began to tell.

She told what Rosalie had perfectly well known. The delightful thing expected to happen was Harry Occleve's proposal of marriage to darling Laetitia. There had been certain signs and portents. They had come at last. Their meaning was perfectly clear. There was not the least doubt that at the next meeting Harry would ask Laetitia's hand. Not the shadow of a doubt! Aunt Belle knew all the signs! Every woman of Aunt Belle's experience knew them, dear child. So Harry had been asked for this dinner; a meaningly written letter, dear child, to encourage him, the dear, poor fellow! And had accepted, in terms so meaning too, the dear, devoted fellow. Then-

"But, Aunt Belle-"

"Listen, dear child. Then he suddenly wrote saying he found he had made a mistake-"

"Made a mistake!" The words went out from Rosalie in a small cry.

"Dear child, it is nothing. How sweet to be so concerned! It is nothing, it is the best of signs. Made a mistake that he was disengaged for Saturday. The dear, devoted fellow was so absurdly vague about it. Unavoidable circumstances prevented him; that was all; his writing and all the appearance of his letter so delightfully distracted! How amused we were, your Uncle Pyke and I! How amused, and how we felt for the dear, devoted fellow! Screwing up his courage! How we remembered our own courtship! You should hear your Uncle Pyke tell how he had to screw up his courage to propose to me and how many times it failed him and he fled. Dear, child, you've no idea how ridiculous these poor men are in their love! How timorous! How they suffer! The dear, poor fellows. Your Uncle Pyke wrote him at once a most kind and meaning letter-accepting his unforeseen circumstances (he had to, of course) and positively fixing him for Monday instead. 'Laetitia is expecting you,' your Uncle Pyke wrote. The dear fellow! How happy it will make him! So it is Monday, dear child. Monday, instead. We do so want you to be there. I do so want you, and so does my darling, to be the first to congratulate her. And you shall be a bridesmaid! Won't that be nice? Kiss me, dear child. I shall never forget your sweet concern before I told you his excuse meant nothing. Dear child, you look startled yet."

There was only a faint voice that came to Rosalie's lips. "Really nothing, Aunt Belle?"

"Dear child, nothing at all."

She went down to the Rectory on Saturday and found herself more glad to be there and to be with her mother than she had ever been. When she greeted her mother, "Kiss me again, dear, small mother," she cried and put her cheek against her mother's and held it there some moments, rather fiercely and with her eyes closed, as though there were in that contact some febrifuge that abated her inward fever, some mooring whereto, adrift, her mind made fast.

What beset her? What was the matter with her? What worked within her? Feverishly she inquired of herself, seeking to analyse her case; but she could by no means inform herself; her case was not within what diagnosis she could summon. What? Near as she could get she had the feeling, nay, the wild longing, to get out: out of what? She did not know. To get away: away from what? She could not say.

She found in herself a great and an unusual tenderness towards the home life. Only her mother and her father were now at home. Harold was at a branch of his bank in Shanghai. Robert was in Canada. Flora was in India, married, with two small children. Hilda was in Devonshire, married to a doctor. These things had happened, these flights been winged, and she had taken but the smallest interest in them. She had had her own af-fairs. She had had herself to think of. She had lost touch with her brothers and sisters. She scarcely ever thought about them. Now she wanted very much to hear about them. What news of them was there? How were they getting on? She did want-she could fix that much of her state, or it presented a relief for her state-she did want to feel that she belonged to them and they to her. She noticed with a large whelming of pity how very small her mother seemed to have grown She was always small, but now-much smaller, fallen in, very fragile. She noticed with a quick pang how all her father's violent blackness of hair, and violent red of colouring, and violent glint of eye and violent energy of gesture were faded, greyed, dimmed, devitalized to a hue and to an air that was all one and lustreless, as if he had gone in a pond covered, not with duckweed but with lichen, and had come out, not dripping, but limp and shrouded head to foot in scaly grey. Was it possible that all this had been so when she was last here? She had not noticed it. She noticed that both her dear mother and her father walked on the flat soles of their feet, and touched articles of furniture as they trod, heavily, across the room. A most frightful tenderness towards them possessed her. She wanted like anything to show them devotion and, most frightfully, to receive from them signs of devotion to her-to be able to feel she was theirs, and they hers. She wanted it terribly.

But what else did she want? What? They gave her, all the home talk, but soon it flagged and whatever in her desired satisfaction still gnawed within her and was unsatisfied; she ministered to them and they were pleased but they seemed very quickly tired; they had their accustomed h

ours and habits, and whatever it was in her that found relief in solicitude still tossed within her and was not relieved. What beset her? What?

Monday came. She was at this dinner, this festival for the consummation and celebration of the betrothal of beautiful Laetitia and Laetitia's darling Harry. That sick dis-ease of hers had wonderfully vanished when she came into the house, when she was hugged fit to crack her to Aunt Belle's bosom with "Dear child! Dear child! He's just arrived! He's with your uncle downstairs. Look at Laetitia! Lovely! Isn't she lovely? Kiss me again, again, dear child!" When she was floated to by Laetitia, exquisitely arrayed, pink and white, doll-faced, doll-headed, squeaking with coquettish glee, "Rosalie! Darling! Isn't this awful? Imagine it for me, Rosalie! It oughtn't to have been planned like this, ought it? Do tell darling mamma it ought not to have been! I'm trembling. Wouldn't you be?"

Yes, gone that sick dis-ease. How at this spectacle suffer dis-ease, or any other disturbance of the emotions save only disgust, contempt at such a horrid preparation for such a horrid rite. Excited responsiveness to their most friendly excitation was not needed in her for it was not expected. "The shy, quiet thing you always are, dear child," Aunt Belle often used to say to her and said now. (And within the week was to beat her breast in that same drawing-room and cry with an exceeding bitter cry, "Shy! We thought her shy! Sly! Sly! Sly to the tips of her fingers, the wicked girl!")

So she need respond with no more than her normal quiet smile, her normal tone, in their presence, of poor-relation deference and awe. So behind that mask could curl her lip and shudder in the refinements of her views at this most horrid preparation for this most horrid rite. And did. That dis-ease strangely fled, there came to her the swift belief that here, and she had not known it!-was that dis-ease's cause. It was the anticipation of this exhibition of all the things she hated most, of the most glaring presentiment of outrage of all her strongest principles. This Laetitia, embodiment of useless woman-hood, launching herself on that disgusting dependence on a man that soon would strand her among the derelicts; and that Laetitia's Harry, that might have been a man among men, coming to the apotheosis of his languishing to-oh, wreathed, fatted calf with gilded horns!

Yes, it was this had vexed her so; and suddenly informed of the seat of her injury she turned upon it disgust and scorn such as never before had she felt (and she, had felt it always) for the whole order of things for which it stood. She felt her very blood run acid, causing her to twist, in her acid contempt for the subservience of women, and most of all for that Laetitia's subservience, floated on that ghastly coquetry like a shifting cargo that in the first gale will capsize the ship; she felt her very temples throb, and almost thought they must be heard, in her fierce detestation of all the masculinity of men and most of all-yes, with a flash of eye she could not stay and hoped that he could see-that fatuous Harry's masculinity.

He came into the room-looked pale-poor calf!-and went, with a nervous halt in his walk-sick fool!-to his Laetitia; and looked across at Rosalie and made a half-step to her; and she thought with all her force, to send it to him, her last words to him: that most malevolent, "to see you raise your eyes and hear you breathe, 'Ah, Laetitia'"; and surely sent it, for on that half-step towards her he stopped, hesitated, and turned and engaged Laetitia again.

She had told herself, leaving the Sturgiss's house that night a week ago, that she had not believed it possible to hate a man so. Now! Why that was not hate; that, compared with the inimity that now consumed her, was a mere chill indifference. And it had made her tremble! She was rigid now. Stiff with hate! He personified for her all in life against which she was in rebellion, all in life that her soul abhorred; and while, in the moments before dinner, grunting Uncle Pyke and rallying Aunt Belle and coquetting Laetitia crowded about him, leaving her alone and far apart, she, for the reason that it gave to her hate, and for the example that stood before her eyes, reviewed again her theories of life and again pledged herself in their support....

"Dinner is served." That group went laughing to the door, she followed. "No, no, my boy. Don't stand on ceremony. Pass along as we come. Why, hang it, man, we regard you as one of the family! Ha! ha! haw!" Down the stairs in a body, she following. There is, from their conversation, something the wreathed calf is to get from his coat to bring to show them, a letter or a token or something. The dining-room is to the front on the ground floor. The coats hang in the hall, a narrow passage there, that runs back to Uncle Pyke's study. They are down. "Shall I get it now?" "Yes, bring it along; bring it along, my boy." "And Rosalie" (Aunt Belle), "my fan, dear child. Dear child, I left it on the table in Uncle Pyke's den. You will? Dear child!"

They pass in. The gilded calf turns from them for what it is he is to fetch from his coat; she slips by him to the study and takes up the fan and comes with it again.

It is dim in the passage. A condition on which generous Uncle Pyke years before installed this wonderful electric light that you flick on and flick off as you require it was that it should always be flicked off when you did not require it. Now as Rosalie came from the study the passage was lit only by the shaft of light that gleamed from the dining-room door; its only sound Aunt Belle's noisy chatter from the waiting table.

He was fumbling at the coats, standing there sharply outlined against the stream of light, his face cut on it in a perfect silhouette. She had to pass him. That hateful he. She was seized with a fit of that same trembling that had shaken her after the passage between them at the gate on Shoot Up Hill. It shook her now, dreadfully. Her knees trembled. She felt faint. Awful to hate so! She was quite close, almost touching him. It was necessary he should move, forward or back, to give her room. But he did not move. His hands, outstretched before him on the coats, and sharp against the light, appeared to her to be shaking; but that was the hallucination of this frightful trembling that possessed her. She tried to say, "If you please-," but, dreadfully, had no voice; but made some sound; and he, most slowly, drew back. It was before him that she had to pass.

She advanced; and felt, as if she saw it, the intensity of the gaze of his eyes upon her; and saw, as if the place were light and her look not averted, his "marching" face and those lines radiating to his temples (horizon tracks) where the faint touch of greyness was; and suddenly had upon her senses, with an extraordinary pungency, causing them to swim, that odd, nice smell there was about him of mingled peat and soap and fresh tobacco, of tweed and heather and the sea.

She caught her breath...

The thing's too poignant for the words a man has.

She was caught in his arms, terribly enfolding her. He was crying in her ears, passionately, triumphantly, "Rosalie! Rosalie!" She was in his arms. Those long, strong arms of his were round her; and she was caught against his heart, her face upturned to his, his face against her own; and she was swooning, falling through incredible spaces, drowning in incredible seas, sinking through incredible blackness; and in her ears his voice, coming to her in her extremity like the beat of a wing in the night, like the first pulsing roll of music enormously remote, "Rosalie! Rosalie!"

The thing's too poignant for the words one has. This girl's extremity was very great, not to be set in words. Words cannot bring to earth that which, ethereal, defies our comprehension as life and death defy it and, like life and death, to our comprehension only sublimely IS. Words only can say her spirit, bursting from bondage, streamed up to cleave to his; how tell the anguish, how the ecstasy? Words only can say her spirit, like a live part of her drawn out of her, seemed to be rushing upwards from her body to her lips; words cannot tell the anguish that was bliss, the rapture that was pain. Only can say that she was in his arms, her heart to his, his lips against her own, and cannot tell-

But also it is to be accounted to her for her extremity that herein all her life's habit was delivered over by her to betrayal.

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