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Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 24216

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"I have not sinned against the God of Love."

-Edmund Gosse.

When Anne returned to the house an hour or two later she heard an alien voice and strident laugh through the open door of the drawing-room as she crossed the hall, and she crept noiselessly upstairs towards her own room. She felt as if she were quite unable to bear so soon again the strain of that small family party. But halfway up the stairs her conscience pricked her. Was all well in the drawing-room? She sighed, and went slowly downstairs again.

All was not well there.

Mrs Trefusis was sitting frozen upright in her high-backed chair, listening with congealed civility to the would-be-easy conversation, streaked with nervous laughter, of a young man. Anne saw at a glance that he must be Janet's brother, and she instinctively divined that, on the strength of his sister's engagement, he was now making, unasked, his first call on Mrs Trefusis.

Fred Black was a tall, sufficiently handsome man seen apart from Janet. He could look quite distinguished striding about in well-made breeches among a group of farmers and dealers on market-day. But taken away from his appropriate setting, and inserted suddenly into the Easthope drawing-room, in Janet's proximity, he changed like a chameleon, and appeared dilapidated, in spite of being over-dressed, irretrievably second-rate, and unwholesome-looking. He was so like his sister that a certain indefinable commonness, not of breeding but of character, and a suggestion of cunning and insolence observable in him, were thrown into high relief by the strong superficial resemblance of feature between them.

Janet was sitting motionless and embarrassed before the tea-table, waiting for the tea to become of brandied strength. Mrs Trefusis, possibly mindful of Anne's appeal, had evidently asked her future daughter-in-law to pour out tea for her. And Janet, to the instant annoyance of the elder woman, had carefully poured cream into each empty cup as a preliminary measure.

George was standing in sullen silence by the tea-table, vaguely aware that something was wrong, and wishing that Fred had not called.

The strain relaxed as Anne entered.

Anne came in quickly, with a gentle expectancy of pleasure in her grave face. She gave the impression of one who has hastened back to congenial society.

If this be hypocrisy, Anne was certainly a hypocrite. There are some natures, simple and patient, who quickly perceive and gladly meet the small occasions of life. Anne had come into the world willing to serve, and she did not mind whom she served. She did gracefully, even gaily, the things that others did not think worth while. This was, of course, no credit to her. She was made so. Just as some of us are so fastidiously, so artistically constituted as to make the poor souls who have to live with us old before their time.

Mrs Trefusis' face became less knotted. Janet gave a sigh of relief. George said: "Hi, Ponto! How are ye?" and affably stirred up his sleeping retriever with his foot.

Anne sat down by Janet, advised her that Mrs Trefusis did not like cream, and then, while she swallowed a cup of tea sweetened to nausea, devoted herself to Fred.

His nervous laugh became less strident, his conversation less pendulous between a paralysed constraint and a galvanized familiarity. Anne loved horses, but she did not talk of them to Fred, though, from his appearance, it seemed as if no other subject had ever occupied his attention.

Why is it that a passion for horses writes itself as plainly as a craving for alcohol on the faces of the men and women who live for them?

Anne spoke of the Boer war in its most obvious aspects, mentioned a few of its best-known incidents, of which even he could not be ignorant. Janet glanced with fond pride at her brother, as he declaimed against the Government for its refusal to buy thousands of hypothetical Kaffir ponies, and as he posted Anne in the private workings of the mind of her cousin, the Prime Minister. Fred had even heard of certain scandals respecting the hospitals for the wounded, and opined with decision that war could not be conducted on rose-water principles, with a bottle of eau-de-Cologne at each man's pillow.

"Fine woman that!" said Fred to Janet afterwards, as she walked a few steps with him on his homeward way. "Woman of the world. Knows her way about. And how she holds herself! A little thin perhaps, and not much colour, but shows her breeding. Who is she?"

"Lady Varney."

"Married?"

"N-no."

"H'm! Look here, Janet. You suck up to her. And you look how she does things, and notice the way she talks. She reads the papers, takes an interest in politics. That's what a man likes. You do the same. And don't you knock under to that old bag of bones too much. Hold your own. We are as good as she is."

"Oh, no, Fred; we're not."

"Oh! it's all rot about family. It's not worth a rush. We are just the same as them. A gentleman's a gentleman whether he lives in a large house or a small one, and the real snobs are the people who think different. Does it make you less of a lady because you live in an unpretentious way? Not a bit of it. Don't talk to me."

Janet remained silent. She felt there was some hitch in her brother's reasoning, which, until to-day, had appeared to her irrefutable, but she could not see where the hitch lay.

"You must stand up to the old woman, I tell you. I don't want you to be rude, but you let her know that she is the dowager. Don't give way. Didn't you see how I tackled her?"

"I'm not clever like you."

"Well, you are a long sight prettier," said her brother proudly. "And I've brought some dollars with me for the trousseau. You go to the Brands to-morrow, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Well, don't pay for anything you can help. Tell them to put it down. Get this Lady Varney or Mrs Brand to recommend the shops and dressmakers, and then they will not dun us for money."

"Oh, Fred! Are you so hard up?"

"Hard up!" said Fred, his face becoming suddenly pinched and old. "Hard up!" He drew in his breath. "Oh! I'm all right. At least, yes, just for the moment I'm a bit pressed. Look here, Janet. You and Mrs Brand are old pals. Get Brand," his voice became hoarse, "get Brand to wait a bit. He has my I O U, and he has waited once, but he warned me he would not again. He said it was against his rules; as if rules matter between gentlemen. He's as hard as nails. The I O U falls due next week, and I can't meet it. I don't want any bother till after you are spliced. You and Mrs Brand lay your heads together, and persuade him to wait till you are married, at any rate. He hates me, but he won't want to stand in your light."

"I'll ask him," said Janet, looking earnestly at her brother, but only half understanding why his face was so white and set. "But why don't you take my two thousand and pay him back? I said you could borrow it. I think that would be better than speaking again to Mr Brand, who will never listen."

"No, it wouldn't," said Fred, his hand shaking so violently that he gave up attempting to light a cigarette. He knew that that two thousand, Janet's little fortune, existed only in her imagination. It had existed once; he had had charge of it, but it was gone.

"Ask Brand," he said again. "A man with any gentlemanly feeling cannot refuse a pretty woman anything. I can't. You ask Brand-as if it was to please you. You're pretty enough to wheedle anything out of men. He'll do it."

"I'll ask him," said Janet again, and she sighed as she went back alone to the great house which was one day to be hers. She did not think of that as she looked up at the long lines of stone-mullioned windows. She thought only of her George, and wondered, with a blush of shame, whether Fred had yet borrowed money from him.

Then, as she saw a white figure move past the gallery windows, she remembered Anne, and her brother's advice to her to make a friend of "Lady Varney." Janet had been greatly drawn towards Anne, after she had got over a certain stolid preliminary impression that Anne was "fine." And Janet had immediately mistaken Anne's tactful kindness to herself for an overture of friendship. Perhaps that is a mistake which many gentle, commonplace souls make, who go through life disillusioned as to the sincerity of certain other attractive, brilliant creatures with whom they have come in momentary contact, to whom they can give nothing, but from whom they have received a generous measure of delicate sympathy and kindness, which they mistook for the prelude of friendship; a friendship which never arrived. It is well for us when we learn the difference between the donations and the subscriptions of those richer than ourselves, when we realize how broad is the way towards a person's kindness, and how many surprisingly inferior individuals are to be met therein; and how strait is the gate, how hard to find, and how doubly hard, when found, to force it, of that same person's friendship.

Janet supposed that Anne liked her as much as she herself liked Anne, and, being a simple soul, she said to herself, "I think I will go and sit with her a little."

A more experienced person than my poor heroine would have felt that there was not marked encouragement in the civil "Come in" which answered her knock at Anne's door.

But Janet came in smiling, sure of her welcome. Every one was sure of their welcome with Anne.

She was sitting in a low chair by the open window. She had taken off what Janet would have called her "Sunday gown," and had wrapped round her a long, diaphanous white garment, the like of which Janet had never seen. It was held at the neck by a pale green ribbon, cunningly drawn through lace insertion, and at the waist by another wider green ribbon, which fell to the feet. The spreading lace-edged hem showed the point of a green morocco slipper.

Janet looked with respectful wonder at Anne's dressing-gown, and a momentary doubt as to whether her presence was urgently needed vanished. Anne must have been expecting her. She would not have put on that exquisite garment to sit by herself in.

Janet's eyes travelled to Anne's face.

Even the faint, reassuring smile, which did not come the first moment it was summoned, could not disguise the fatigue of that pale face, though it effaced a momentary impatience.

"You are very tired," said Janet. "I wish you were as strong as me."

Janet's beautiful eyes had an admiring devotion in them, and also a certain wistfulness, which appealed to Anne.

"Sit down," she said cordially. "That is a comfortable chair."

"You were reading. Shan't I interrupt you?" said Janet, sitting down nevertheless, and feeling that tact could no further go.

"It does not matter," said Anne, closing the book, but keeping one slender finger in the place.

"What is your book called?"

"'Inasmuch.'"

"Who wrote it?"

"Hester Gresley."

"I think I've heard of her," said Janet cautiously. "Mrs Smith, our Rector's wife, says that Mr Smith does not approve of her books; they have such a low tone. I think Fred read one of them on a visit once. I haven't time myself for much reading."

Silence.

"I should like," said Janet, turning her clear, wide gaze upon Anne, "I should like to read the books you read, and know the things you know. I should like to-to be like you."

A delicate colour came into Anne's face, and she looked down embarrassed at the volume in her hand.

"Would you read me a little bit?" said Janet. "Not beginning at the beginning, but just going on where you left off."

"I am afraid you might not care for it any more than Mr Smith does."

"Oh! I'm not deeply read like Mr Smith. Is it poetry?"

"No."

"I'm glad it isn't poetry. Is it about love?"

"Yes."

"I used not to care to read about love, but now I think I should like it very much."

A swift emotion passed over Anne's face. She took up the book, and slowly opened it. Janet looked with admiration at her slender hands.

"I wish mine were white like hers," she thou

ght, as she looked at her own far more beautiful but slightly tanned hands, folded together in her lap in an attitude of attention.

Anne hesitated a moment, and then began to read:

* * *

"I had journeyed some way in life, I was travel-stained and weary, when I met Love. In the empty, glaring highway I met him, and we walked in it together. I had not thought he fared in such steep places, having heard he was a dweller in the sheltered gardens, which were not for me. Nevertheless he went with me. I never stopped for him, or turned aside out of my path to seek him, for I had met his counterfeit when I was young, and I distrusted strangers afterwards. And I prayed to God to turn my heart wholly to Himself, and to send Love away, lest he should come between me and Him. But when did God hearken to any prayer of mine?

"And Love was grave and stern. And as we walked he showed me the dew upon the grass, and the fire in the dew, the things I had seen all my life and had never understood. And he drew the rainbow through his hand. I was one with the snowdrop and with the thunderstorm. And we went together upon the sea, swiftly up its hurrying mountains, swiftly down into its rushing valleys. And I was one with the sea. And all fear ceased out of my life, and a great awe dwelt with me instead. And Love wore a human face. But I knew that was for a moment only. Did not Christ the same?

"And Love showed me the hearts of my brothers in the crowd. And, last of all, he showed me myself, with whom I had lived in ignorance. And I was humbled.

"And then Love, who had given me all, asked for all. And I gave reverence, and patience, and faith, and hope, and intuition, and service. I even gave him truth. I put my hands under his feet. But he said it was not enough. So I gave him my heart. That was the last I had to give.

"And Love took it in a great tenderness and smote it. And in the anguish the human face of Love vanished away.

"And afterwards, long years afterwards, when I was first able to move and look up, I saw Love, who, as I thought, was gone, keeping watch beside me. And I saw his face clear, without the human veil between me and it. And it was the Face of God. And I saw that Love and God are one, and that, because of His exceeding glory, He had been constrained to take flesh even as Christ took it, so that my dim eyes might be able to apprehend Him. And I saw that it was He and He only who had walked with me from the first."

* * *

Anne laid down the book. She looked fixedly out across the quiet gardens, with their long shadows, to the still, sun-lit woods beyond. Her face changed, as the face of one who, in patient endurance, has long rowed against the stream, and who at last lets the benign, constraining current take her whither it will. The look of awed surrender seldom seen on a living face, seldom absent from the faces of the newly dead, rested for a moment on Anne's.

* * *

"I don't think," said Janet, "I quite understand what it means, because I was not sure whether it was a lady or a gentleman that was speaking."

Anne started violently, and turned her colourless face towards the voice. It seemed to recall her from a great distance. She had forgotten Janet. She had been too far off to hear what she had said.

"I like the bit about giving Love our hearts," said Janet tentatively. "It means something the same as the sermon did this morning, doesn't it, about not laying up our treasure upon earth?"

There was a silence.

"Yes," said Anne gently, her voice and face quivering a little, "perhaps it does. I had not thought of it in that way till you mentioned it, but I see what you mean."

"That we ought to put religion first."

"Y-yes."

"I am so glad you read that to me," continued Janet comfortably, "because I had an idea that you and I should feel the same about"-she hesitated-"about love. I mean," she corrected herself, "you would, if you were engaged."

"I have never been engaged," said Anne, in the tone of one who gently but firmly closes a subject.

"When you are," said Janet, peacefully pursuing the topic, and looking at her with tender confidence, "you will feel like me, that it's-just everything."

"Shall I?"

"I don't know any poetry, except two lines that George copied out for me-

'Don't love me at all,

Or love me all in all.'"

Anne winced, but recovered herself instantly.

"It's like that with me," continued Janet. "It's all in all. And then I am afraid that is laying up treasures on earth, isn't it?"

"Not if you love God more because you love George."

Janet ruminated. You could almost hear her mind at work upon the suggestion, as you hear a coffee-mill respond to a handful of coffee berries.

"I think I do," she said at last, and she added below her breath, "I thank God all the time for sending George, and I pray I may be worthy of him."

Anne's eyes filled with sudden tears-not for herself.

"I hope you will be very happy," she said, laying her hand on Janet's. It seemed to Anne a somewhat forlorn hope.

Janet's hand closed slowly over Anne's.

"I think we shall," she said. "And yet I sometimes doubt, when I remember that I am not his equal. I knew that in a way from the first, but I see it more and more since I came here. I don't wonder Mrs Trefusis doesn't think me good enough."

"Mrs Trefusis does not take fancies quickly."

"It is not that," said Janet. "There's two ways of not being good enough. Till now I have only thought of one way, of not being good enough in myself, like such things as temper. I'm not often angry, but if I am I stay angry. I don't alter. I was once angry with Fred for a year. I've thought a great deal about that since I've cared for George. And sometimes I fancy I'm rather slow. I daresay you haven't noticed it, but Mrs Smith often remarks upon it. She always has something to say on any subject, just like you have; but somehow I haven't."

"I don't know Mrs Smith."

"I wish you did. She's wonderful. She says she learnt it when she went out so much in the West End before her marriage."

"Indeed!"

"But since I've been here I see there's another way I'm not good enough, which sets Mrs Trefusis against me. I don't think she would mind if I told lies and had a bad temper, and couldn't talk like Mrs Smith, if I was good enough in her way-I mean if I was high-born like you."

The conversation seemed to contain as many pins as a well-stocked pincushion. The expression "high-born" certainly had a sharp point, but Anne made no sign as it was driven in. She considered a moment, and then said, as if she had decided to risk something: "You are right. Mrs Trefusis would have been pleased if you had been my sister. You perhaps think that very worldly. I think it is very natural."

"I wish I were your sister," said Janet, who might be reckoned on for remaining half a field behind.

Anne sighed, and leaned back in her chair.

"If I were your sister," continued Janet, wholly engrossed in getting her slow barge heavily under way, "you would have told me a number of little things which-I don't seem to know."

"You could easily learn some of them," said Anne, "and that would greatly please Mrs Trefusis."

"Could you tell me of anything in especial?"

"Well! For instance-I don't mind myself in the least-but it would be better not to call me 'Lady Varney.'"

"I did not know you would like me to call you 'Anne.'"

"You are quite right. We do not know each other well enough."

"Then what ought I to call you?"

"My friends call me 'Lady Anne.'"

"Dear me!" said Janet, astonished. "There's Lady Alice Thornton. She married Mr Thornton, our member. Fred sold him a hunter. And she is sometimes called 'Lady Alice Thornton' and sometimes 'Lady Thornton.' Mrs Smith says--"

"Then," continued Anne, who seemed indisposed to linger on the subject, "it would please Mrs Trefusis if you came into a room with more courage."

Janet stared at her adviser round-eyed.

"It is shy work, isn't it?" said Anne. "I always had a great difficulty in getting into a room myself when I was your age. (O Anne! Anne!) I mean, in getting well into the middle. But I saw I ought to try, and not to hesitate near the door, because, you see, it obliges old ladies, and people like Mrs Trefusis, who is rather lame, to come nearly to the door to meet us. And we young ones ought to go up to them, even if it makes us feel shy."

"I never thought of that," said Janet. "I will remember those two things always. Mrs Smith always comes in very slow, but then she's a married woman, and she says she likes to give people time to realise her. I will watch how you come in. I will try and copy you in everything. And if I am in doubt, may I ask you?"

Anne laughed, and rose lightly.

"Do," she said, "if you think I could be of any use on these trivial matters. I live among trivialities. But remember always that they are trivial. The only thing that is of any real importance in this uphill world is to love and be loved. You will know that when you are my age."

And Anne put her arm round the tall young figure for a moment, and kissed her. And then suddenly, why she knew not, Janet discovered, even while Anne stood smiling at her, that the interview was over.

It seemed a pity, for, when Janet had reached her own room, she remembered that she had intended to consult Anne as to the advisability of cutting her glorious hair into a fringe, like Mrs Smith's.

* * *

Anne and Janet travelled together to London next day, and on the journey Janet laid before Anne, in all its bearings, the momentous question of her hair. Fred had said she would never look up to date till she cut a fringe. George had opined that her hair looked very nice as it was, while Mrs Smith had asseverated that it was impossible to mix in good society, or find a hat to suit the face, without one.

Anne settled once and for all that Janet's hair, parted and waving naturally, like the Venus of Milo's, was not to be touched. She became solemnly severe on the subject, as she saw Janet was still wavering. And she even offered to help Janet with her trousseau, to take her to Vernon, her own tailor, and to her own hatter and dress-maker. Janet had no conception what a sacrifice of time that offer meant to a person of endless social engagements like Anne, who was considered one of the best-dressed women in London.

But to Anne's secret amusement and thankfulness, this offer was gratefully declined in an embarrassed manner.

Janet's great friend, Mrs Macalpine Brand, to whose flat in Lowndes Mansions she was now on her way, had offered to help her with her trousseau. Did Lady Var-Anne know Mrs Macalpine Brand? She went out a great deal in London, so perhaps she might have met her. And she was always beautifully dressed.

Anne remembered vaguely a certain overdressed, would-be-smart, insufferable Mrs Brand, who had made bare-faced but fruitless attempts to scrape acquaintance with herself when she and Anne had been on the same committee.

"I have met a very pretty Mrs Brand," she said, "when I was working with Mrs Forrester. She had an excellent head for business-and had she not rather a peculiar Christian name?"

"Cuckoo."

"Yes, that was it. She helped Mrs Forrester's charity most generously when it was in debt."

"She is my greatest friend," said Janet, beaming. "I shall be staying with her all this next fortnight. May I bring her with me when I come to tea with you?"

Anne hesitated half a second before she said, "Do."

She was glad afterwards that she had said it, for it pleased Janet, and poor little Mrs Macalpine Brand never took advantage of it. Even at that moment as they spoke of her, she was absorbed, to the shutting out even of plans for social advancement, in more pressing subjects.

The two girls parted at Victoria, and the last time Anne saw Janet's face, in its halo of happiness, was as Janet nodded to her through the window of the four-wheeler, which bore her away to her friend Mrs Brand.

* * *

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