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Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 15070

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Yea, each with the other will lose and win,

Till the very Sides of the Grave fall in."

-W. E. Henley.

It was a summer night, hot and still, six weeks later, towards the end of July. Through the open windows of a house in Hamilton Gardens a divine voice came out into the listening night:-

"She comes not when Noon is on the roses-

Too bright is day.

She comes not to the Soul till it reposes

From work and play.

But when Night is on the hills, and the great Voices

Roll in from Sea,

By starlight and by candlelight and dreamlight

She comes to me."

Stephen sat alone in Hamilton Gardens, a massive figure under a Chinese lantern, which threw an unbecoming light on his grim face and heavy brows, and laid on the grass a grotesque boulder of shadow of the great capitalist.

I do not know what he was thinking about, as he sat listening to the song, biting what could only by courtesy be entitled his little finger. Was he undergoing a passing twinge of poetry? Did money occupy his thoughts?

His impassive face betrayed nothing. When did it ever betray anything?

He was not left long alone. Figures were pacing in the half-lit gardens, two and two.

Prose rushed in upon him in the shape of a small square body, upholstered in grey satin, which trundled its way resolutely towards him.

The Duchess feared neither God nor man, but if fear had been possible to her, it would have been for that dignified, yet elusive, personage, whom she panted to call her son-in-law.

She sat down by him with anxiety and determination in her eyes.

"By starlight, and by candlelight, and dreamlight she comes to me," said Stephen to himself, with a sardonic smile. "Also by daylight, and when noon is on the roses, and when I am at work and at play. In short, she always comes."

"What a perfect night!" said the Duchess.

"Perfect."

"And that song-how beautiful!"

"Beautiful."

"I did not know you cared for poetry?"

"I don't."

Stephen added to other remarkable qualities that of an able and self-possessed liar. In business he was considered straight even by gentlemen, foolishly strait-laced by men of business. But to certain persons, and the Duchess was one of them, he never spoke the truth. He was wont to say that any lies he told he did not intend to account for, in this world or the next; and that the bill, if there was one, would never be sent in to him. He certainly had the courage of his convictions.

"I want you to think twice of the disappointment you have given us all by not coming to us in Scotland this autumn. The Duke was really quite put out. He had so reckoned on your coming."

Stephen did not answer. He had a colossal power of silence when it suited him. He had liked the Duke for several years before he had made the acquaintance of his family. The two men had met frequently on business, understood each other, and had almost reached friendship when the Duchess intervened, to ply her "savage trade." Since then a shade of distant politeness had tinged the Duke's manner towards Stephen, and the self-made man, sensitive to anything that resembled a sense of difference of class, instinctively drew away from him. Yet, if Stephen had but known it, the change in the Duke's manner was only owing to the unformulated suspicion that the father sometimes feels for the man, however eligible, whom he suspects of filching from him his favourite daughter.

"We are all disappointed," continued the Duchess, and her power of hitting on the raw did not fail her, for her victim winced-not perceptibly. She went on: "Do think of it again, Mr Vanbrunt. If you could see Larinnen in autumn-the autumn tints, you know-and no party. Just ourselves. And I am sure from your face you are a lover of Nature."

"I hate Nature," said Stephen. "It bores me. I am very easily bored."

He was longing to get away from London, to steep his soul in the sympathy of certain solitary woodland places he knew of, shy as himself; where perhaps the strain on his aching spirit might relax somewhat, where he could lie in the shade for hours, and listen to running water, and forget that he was a plain, middle-aged millionaire, whom a brilliant, exquisite creature could not love for himself.

"When I said no party I did not mean quite alone," said the Duchess, breathing heavily, for a frontal attack is generally also an uphill one. "A few cheerful friends. How right you are! One does not see enough of one's real friends. Anne often says that. She said to me only yesterday, when we were talking of you--"

The two liars were interrupted by the advance towards them of Anne and De Rivaz. They came silently across the shadowy grass, into the little ring of light thrown by the Chinese lantern.

De Rivaz was evidently excited. His worn, cynical face looked boyish in the garish light.

"Duchess," he said, "I have only just heard by chance from Lady Anne, that the unknown divinity whom I am turning heaven and earth to find, in order that I may paint her, has actually been staying under your roof, and that you intend to ask her again."

"Mr De Rivaz means Janet Black," said Anne to her mother.

"I implore you to ask me to meet her," said the painter.

"But she is just going to be married," said the Duchess, with genuine regret. Here was an opportunity lost.

"I know it; it breaks my heart to know it," said De Rivaz. "But married or not, maid, wife, or widow, I must paint her. Give me the chance of making her acquaintance."

"I will do what I can," said the Duchess, gently tilting forward her square person on to its flat white satin feet, and looking with calculating approval at her daughter. Surely Anne had never looked so lovely as at this obviously propitious moment.

"Take a turn with me, young man," continued the Duchess, "and I will see what I can do. And Anne," she said with a backward glance at her daughter, "try and persuade Mr Vanbrunt to come to us in September."

"I will do my best," said Anne, and she sat down on the bench.

Stephen, who had risen when she joined them, looked at her with shy, angry admiration.

It was a new departure for Anne so openly to abet her mother, and it wounded him.

"Won't you sit down again?" said Anne, meeting his eyes firmly. "I wish to speak to you."

He sat down awkwardly. He was always awkward in her presence. Perhaps it was only a moment, but it seemed to him an hour while she kept silence.

The same voice sang across the starlit dark:

"Some souls have quickened, eye to eye,

And heart to heart, and hand in hand;

The swift fire leaps, and instantly

They understand."

Neither heard it. Nearer than the song, close between them some mighty enfolding presence seemed to have withdrawn them into itself. There is a moment when Love leaves the two hearts in which He dwells, and stands between them revealed.

So far it has been man and woman and Love-three persons met painfully together, who cannot walk together, not being agreed. But the hour comes when in awe the man and woman perceive, what was always so from the beginning, that they twain are but one being, one foolish creature who, in a great blindness, thought it was two, mistook itself for two.

Perhaps that moment of discovery of our real identity in another is the first lowest rung of the steep ladder of love. Does God, who flung down to us that nearest empty highway to Himself, does He wonder why so few travellers come up by it; why we go wearily round by such bitter

sin-bogged, sorrow-smirched by-paths, to reach Him at last?

There may be much love without that sense of oneness, but when it comes it can only come to two, it can only be born of a mutual love. Neither can feel it without the other. Anne knew that. By her love for him she knew he loved her. He was slower, more obtuse; yet even he, with his limited perceptions and calculating mind, even he nearly believed, nearly had faith, nearly asked her if she could love him.

But the old self came to his perdition, the strong, shrewd, iron-willed self that had made him what he was, that had taught him to trust few, to follow his own judgment, that in his strenuous life had furnished him with certain dogged conventional ready-made convictions regarding women. Men he could judge, and did judge. He knew who would cheat him, who would fail him at a pinch, whom he could rely on. But of women he knew little. He regarded them as apart from himself, and did not judge them individually, but collectively. He knew how one of Anne's sisters, possibly more than one of them, had been coerced into marriage. He did not see that Anne belonged to a different class of being. His shrewdness, his bitter knowledge of the seamy side of a society to which he did not naturally belong, its uncouth passion for money, blinded him.

He had become very pale while he sat by her, while poor Anne vainly racked her brain to remember what it was she wished to say to him. The overwhelming impulse to speak, to have it out with her, the thirst for her love was upon him. When was it not upon him? He looked at her fixedly, and his heart sank. How could she love him-she in her wand-like delicacy and ethereal beauty? She was not of his world, she was not made of the same clay. No star seemed so remote as this still dark-eyed woman beside him. How could she love him? No, the thing was impossible.

A very ugly emotion laid violent momentary hold on him. Let him take her whether she cared for him or not. If money could buy her, let him buy her.

He glanced sidelong at her, and then moved nearer to her. She turned her head, and looked full at him. She had no fear of him. The fierce, harsh face did not daunt her. She understood him, his stubborn humility, his blind love, this momentary hideous lapse, and knew that it was momentary.

"Lady Anne," he said hoarsely, "will you marry me?"

It had come at last, the word her heart had ached for so long. She did not think. She did not hesitate. She, who had so often been troubled by the mere sight of him across a room, was calm now. She looked at him with a certain gentle scorn.

"No, thank you," she said.

"I love you," he said, taking her hand. "I have long loved you."

It was his hand that trembled. Hers was steady as she withdrew it.

"I know," she said.

"Then could not you think of me? I implore you to marry me."

"You are speaking on impulse. We have hardly exchanged a word with each other for the last three months. You had no intention of asking me to marry you when you came here this evening."

"I don't care what intentions I may or may not have had," said Stephen, his temper, always quick, rising at her self-possession. "I mean what I say now, and I have meant it ever since I first saw you."

"Do you think I love you?"

"I love you enough for both," he said with passion. "You are in my heart and my brain, and I can't tear you out. I can't live without you."

"In old days, when you were not quite so rich, and not quite so worldly-wise, did you not sometimes hope to marry for love?"

"I hope to marry for love now. Do you doubt that I love you?"

"No, I don't. But have you never hoped to marry a woman who would care for you as much as you did for her?"

"I can't expect that," said the millionaire. "I don't expect it. I'm not-I'm not the kind of man whom women easily love."

"No," said Anne, "you're not."

"But when I care, I care with my whole heart. Will you think this over, and give me an answer to-morrow?"

"I have already answered you."

"I beg you to reconsider it."

"Why should I reconsider it?"

"I would try to make you happy. Let me prove my devotion to you."

She looked long at him, and she saw, without the possibility of deceiving herself, that if she told him she loved him he would not believe it. It was the conventional answer when a millionaire offers marriage, and he had a rooted belief in the conventional. After marriage it would be the same. He would think duty prompted it, her kiss, her caress. Oh! suffocating thought. She would be farther from him than ever as his wife.

"I think we should get on together," he faltered, her refusal reaching him gradually, like a cold tide rising round him. "I had ventured to hope that you did not dislike me."

"I do not dislike you," said Anne deliberately. "You are quite right. The thing I dislike is a mercenary marriage."

He became ashen white. He rose slowly to his feet, and drawing near to her looked steadily at her, lightning in his eyes.

"Do I deserve that insult?" he said, his voice hardly human in its suppressed rage.

He looked formidable in the uncertain light.

She confronted him unflinching.

"Yes," she said, "you do. You calmly offer me marriage while you are firmly convinced that I don't care for you, and you are surprised-you actually dare to be surprised-when I refuse you. Those who offer insults must accept them."

"I intended none, as you well know," he said, drawing back a step. He felt his strength in him, but this slight woman, whom he could break with one hand, was stronger than he.

"Why should I marry you if I don't love you?" she went on. "Why, of course because you are Mr Vanbrunt, the greatest millionaire in England. Your choice has fallen on me. Let me accept with gratitude my brilliant fate, and if I don't actually dislike you, so much the better for both of us."

Stephen continued to look hard at her, but he said nothing. Her beauty astonished him.

"And what do we both lose," said Anne, "in such a marriage-you as well as I? Is it not the one chance, the one hope of a mutual love? Is it so small a thing in your eyes that you can cast the possibility from you of a love that will meet yours and not endure it, the possibility of a woman somewhere, who might be found for diligent seeking, who might walk into your life without seeking, who would love you as much as"-Anne's voice shook-"perhaps even more than you love her;-to whom you-you yourself-stern and grim as you seem to many-might be the whole world? Have you always been so busy making this dreadful money, which buys so much, that you have forgotten the things that money can't buy? No; no. Do not let us lock each other out from the only thing worth having in this hard world. We should be companions in misfortune."

She held out her hands to him with a sudden beautiful gesture, and smiled at him through her tears.

He took her hands in his large grasp, and in his small quick eyes there were tears too.

"We have both something to forgive each other," she said, trembling like a reed. "I have spoken harshly, and you unwisely. But the day will come when you will be grateful to me that I did not shut you out from the only love that could make you, of all men, really happy-the love that is returned."

He kissed each hand gently, and released them. He could not speak.

She went swiftly from him through the trees.

"May God bless her," said Stephen. "May God in heaven bless her."

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