Occasionally Milvain met his sisters as they came out of church on Sunday morning, and walked home to have dinner with them. He did so to-day, though the sky was cheerless and a strong north-west wind made it anything but agreeable to wait about in open spaces.
‘Are you going to Mrs Wright’s this afternoon?’ he asked, as they went on together.
‘I thought of going,’ replied Maud. ‘Marian will be with Dora.’
‘You ought both to go. You mustn’t neglect that woman.’
He said nothing more just then, but when presently he was alone with Dora in the sitting-room for a few minutes, he turned with a peculiar smile and remarked quietly:
‘I think you had better go with Maud this afternoon.’
‘But I can’t. I expect Marian at three.’
‘That’s just why I want you to go.’
She looked her surprise.
‘I want to have a talk with Marian. We’ll manage it in this way. At a quarter to three you two shall start, and as you go out you can tell the landlady that if Miss Yule comes she is to wait for you, as you won’t be long. She’ll come upstairs, and I shall be there. You see?’
Dora turned half away, disturbed a little, but not displeased.
‘And what about Miss Rupert?’ she asked.
‘Oh, Miss Rupert may go to Jericho for all I care. I’m in a magnanimous mood.’
‘Very, I’ve no doubt.’
‘Well, you’ll do this? One of the results of poverty, you see; one can’t even have a private conversation with a friend without plotting to get the use of a room. But there shall be an end of this state of things.’
He nodded significantly. Thereupon Dora left the room to speak with her sister.
The device was put into execution, and Jasper saw his sisters depart knowing that they were not likely to return for some three hours. He seated himself comfortably by the fire and mused. Five minutes had hardly gone by when he looked at his watch, thinking Marian must be unpunctual. He was nervous, though he had believed himself secure against such weakness. His presence here with the purpose he had in his mind seemed to him distinctly a concession to impulses he ought to have controlled; but to this resolve he had come, and it was now too late to recommence the arguments with himself. Too late? Well, not strictly so; he had committed himself to nothing; up to the last moment of freedom he could always –
That was doubtless Marian’s knock at the front door. He jumped up, walked the length of the room, sat down on another chair, returned to his former seat. Then the door opened and Marian came in.
She was not surprised; the landlady had mentioned to her that Mr Milvain was upstairs, waiting the return of his sisters.
‘I am to make ‘Dora’s excuses,’ Jasper said. ‘She begged you would forgive her – that you would wait.’
‘And you were to be sure to take off your hat,’ he added in a laughing tone; ‘and to let me put your umbrella in the corner – like that.’
He had always admired the shape of Marian’s head, and the beauty of her short, soft, curly hair. As he watched her uncovering it, he was pleased with the grace of her arms and the pliancy of her slight figure.
‘Which is usually your chair?’
‘I’m sure I don’t know.’
‘When one goes to see a friend frequently, one gets into regular habits in these matters. In Biffen’s garret I used to have the most uncomfortable chair it was ever my lot to sit upon; still, I came to feel an affection for it. At Reardon’s I always had what was supposed to be the most luxurious seat, but it was too small for me, and I eyed it resentfully on sitting down and rising.’
‘Have you any news about the Reardons?’
‘Yes. I am told that Reardon has had the offer of a secretaryship to a boys’ home, or something of the kind, at Croydon. But I suppose there’ll be no need for him to think of that now.’
‘Oh there’s no saying.’
‘Why should he do work of that kind now?’
‘Perhaps his wife will tell him that she wants her money all for herself.’
Marian laughed. It was very rarely that Jasper had heard her laugh at all, and never so spontaneously as this. He liked the music.
‘You haven’t a very good opinion of Mrs Reardon,’ she said.
‘She is a difficult person to judge. I never disliked her, by any means; but she was decidedly out of place as the wife of a struggling author. Perhaps I have been a little prejudiced against her since Reardon quarrelled with me on her account.’
Marian was astonished at this unlooked-for explanation of the rupture between Milvain and his friend. That they had not seen each other for some months she knew from Jasper himself but no definite cause had been assigned.
‘I may as well let you know all about it,’ Milvain continued, seeing that he had disconcerted the girl, as he meant to. ‘I met Reardon not long after they had parted, and he charged me with being in great part the cause of his troubles.’
The listener did not raise her eyes.
‘You would never imagine what my fault was. Reardon declared that the tone of my conversation had been morally injurious to his wife. He said I was always glorifying worldly success, and that this had made her discontented with her lot. Sounds rather ludicrous, don’t you think?’
‘It was very strange.’
‘Reardon was in desperate earnest, poor fellow. And, to tell you the truth, I fear there may have been something in his complaint.
I told him at once that I should henceforth keep away from Mrs Edmund Yule’s; and so I have done, with the result, of course, that they suppose I condemn Mrs Reardon’s behaviour. The affair was a nuisance, but I had no choice, I think.’
‘You say that perhaps your talk really was harmful to her.’
‘It may have been, though such a danger never occurred to me.’
‘Then Amy must be very weak-minded.’
‘To be influenced by such a paltry fellow?’
‘To be influenced by anyone in such a way.’
‘You think the worse of me for this story?’ Jasper asked.
‘I don’t quite understand it. How did you talk to her?’
‘As I talk to everyone. You have heard me say the same things many a time. I simply declare my opinion that the end of literary work – unless one is a man of genius – is to secure comfort and repute. This doesn’t seem to me very scandalous. But Mrs Reardon was perhaps too urgent in repeating such views to her husband. She saw that in my case they were likely to have solid results, and it was a misery to her that Reardon couldn’t or wouldn’t work in the same practical way.
‘It was very unfortunate.’
‘And you are inclined to blame me?’
‘No; because I am so sure that you only spoke in the way natural to you, without a thought of such consequences.’
‘That’s precisely the truth. Nearly all men who have their way to make think as I do, but most feel obliged to adopt a false tone, to talk about literary conscientiousness, and so on. I simply say what I think, with no pretences. I should like to be conscientious, but it’s a luxury I can’t afford. I’ve told you all this often enough, you know.’
‘But it hasn’t been morally injurious to you,’ he said with a laugh.
‘Not at all. Still I don’t like it.’
Jasper was startled. He gazed at her. Ought he, then, to have dealt with her less frankly? Had he been mistaken in thinking that the unusual openness of his talk was attractive to her? She spoke with quite unaccustomed decision; indeed, he had noticed from her entrance that there was something unfamiliar in her way of conversing. She was so much more self-possessed than of wont, and did not seem to treat him with the same deference, the same subdual of her own personality.
‘You don’t like it?’ he repeated calmly. ‘It has become rather tiresome to you?’
‘I feel sorry that you should always represent yourself in an unfavourable light.’
He was an acute man, but the self-confidence with which he had entered upon this dialogue, his conviction that he had but to speak when he wished to receive assurance of Marian’s devotion, prevented him from understanding the tone of independence she had suddenly adopted. With more modesty he would have felt more subtly at this juncture, would have divined that the girl had an exquisite pleasure in drawing back now that she saw him approaching her with unmistakable purpose, that she wished to be wooed in less off-hand fashion before confessing what was in her heart. For the moment he was disconcerted. Those last words of hers had a slight tone of superiority, the last thing he would have expected upon her lips.
‘Yet I surely haven’t always appeared so – to you?’ he said.
‘No, not always.’
‘But you are in doubt concerning the real man?’
‘I’m not sure that I understand you. You say that you do really think as you speak.’
‘So I do. I think that there is no choice for a man who can’t bear poverty. I have never said, though, that I had pleasure in mean necessities; I accept them because I can’t help it.’
It was a delight to Marian to observe the anxiety with which he turned to self-defence. Never in her life had she felt this joy of holding a position of command. It was nothing to her that Jasper valued her more because of her money; impossible for it to be otherwise. Satisfied that he did value her, to begin with, for her own sake, she was very willing to accept money as her ally in the winning of his love. He scarcely loved her yet, as she understood the feeling, but she perceived her power over him, and passion taught her how to exert it.
‘But you resign yourself very cheerfully to the necessity,’ she said, looking at him with merely intellectual eyes.
‘You had rather I lamented my fate in not being able to devote myself to nobly unremunerative work?’
There was a note of irony here. It caused her a tremor, but she held her position.
‘That you never do so would make one think – but I won’t speak unkindly.’
‘That I neither care for good work nor am capable of it,’ Jasper finished her sentence. ‘I shouldn’t have thought it would make you think so.’
Instead of replying she turned her look towards the door. There was a footstep on the stairs, but it passed.
‘I thought it might be Dora,’ she said.
‘She won’t be here for another couple of hours at least,’ replied Jasper with a slight smile.
‘But you said – ?’
‘I sent her to Mrs Boston Wright’s that I might have an opportunity of talking to you. Will you forgive the stratagem?’
Marian resumed her former attitude, the faintest smile hovering about her lips.
‘I’m glad there’s plenty of time,’ he continued. ‘I begin to suspect that you have been misunderstanding me of late. I must set that right.’
‘I don’t think I have misunderstood you.’
‘That may mean something very disagreeable. I know that some people whom I esteem have a very poor opinion of me, but I can’t allow you to be one of them. What do I seem to you? What is the result on your mind of all our conversations?’
‘I have already told you.’
‘Not seriously. Do you believe I am capable of generous feeling?’
‘To say no, would be to put you in the lowest class of men, and that a very small one.’’Good! Then I am not among the basest. But that doesn’t give me very distinguished claims upon your consideration. Whatever I am, I am high in some of my ambitions.’
‘Which of them?’
‘For instance, I have been daring enough to hope that you might love me.’
Marian delayed for a moment, then said quietly:
‘Why do you call that daring?’
‘Because I have enough of old-fashioned thought to believe that a woman who is worthy of a man’s love is higher than he, and condescends in giving herself to him.’
His voice was not convincing; the phrase did not sound natural on his lips. It was not thus that she had hoped to hear him speak. Whilst he expressed himself thus conventionally he did not love her as she desired to be loved.
‘I don’t hold that view,’ she said.
‘It doesn’t surprise me. You are very reserved on all subjects, and we have never spoken of this, but of course I know that your thought is never commonplace. Hold what view you like of woman’s position, that doesn’t affect mine.’
‘Is yours commonplace, then?’
‘Desperately. Love is a very old and common thing, and I believe I love you in the old and common way. I think you beautiful, you seem to me womanly in the best sense, full of charm and sweetness. I know myself a coarse being in comparison. All this has been felt and said in the same way by men infinite in variety. Must I find some new expression before you can believe me?’
Marian kept silence.
‘I know what you are thinking,’ he said. ‘The thought is as inevitable as my consciousness of it.’
For an instant she looked at him.
‘Yes, you look the thought. Why have I not spoken to you in this way before? Why have I waited until you are obliged to suspect my sincerity?’
‘My thought is not so easily read, then,’ said Marian.
‘To be sure it hasn’t a gross form, but I know you wish – whatever your real feeling towards me – that I had spoken a fortnight ago. You would wish that of any man in my position, merely because it is painful to you to see a possible insincerity. Well, I am not insincere. I have thought of you as of no other woman for some time. But – yes, you shall have the plain, coarse truth, which is good in its way, no doubt. I was afraid to say that I loved you. You don’t flinch; so far, so good. Now what harm is there in this confession? In the common course of things I shouldn’t be in a position to marry for perhaps three or four years, and even then marriage would mean difficulties, restraints, obstacles. I have always dreaded the thought of marriage with a poor income. You remember?
Love in a hut, with water and a crust, Is – Love forgive us! – cinders, ashes, dust.
You know that is true.’
‘Not always, I dare say.’
‘But for the vast majority of mortals. There’s the instance of the Reardons. They were in love with each other, if ever two people were; but poverty ruined everything. I am not in the confidence of either of them, but I feel sure each has wished the other dead. What else was to be expected? Should I have dared to take a wife in my present circumstances – a wife as poor as myself?’
‘You will be in a much better position before long,’ said Marian. ‘If you loved me, why should you have been afraid to ask me to have confidence in your future?’
‘It’s all so uncertain. It may be another ten years before I can count on an income of five or six hundred pounds – if I have to struggle on in the common way.’
‘But tell me, what is your aim in life? What do you understand by success?’
‘Yes, I will tell you. My aim is to have easy command of all the pleasures desired by a cultivated man. I want to live among beautiful things, and never to be troubled by a thought of vulgar difficulties. I want to travel and enrich my mind in foreign countries. I want to associate on equal terms with refined and interesting people. I want to be known, to be familiarly referred to, to feel when I enter a room that people regard me with some curiosity.’
He looked steadily at her with bright eyes.
‘And that’s all?’ asked Marian.
‘That is very much. Perhaps you don’t know how I suffer in feeling myself at a disadvantage. My instincts are strongly social, yet I can’t be at my ease in society, simply because I can’t do justice to myself. Want of money makes me the inferior of the people I talk with, though I might be superior to them in most things. I am ignorant in many ways, and merely because I am poor. Imagine my never having been out of England! It shames me when people talk familiarly of the Continent. So with regard to all manner of amusements and pursuits at home. Impossible for me to appear among my acquaintances at the theatre, at concerts. I am perpetually at a disadvantage; I haven’t fair play. Suppose me possessed of money enough to live a full and active life for the next five years; why, at the end of that time my position would be secure. To him that hath shall be given – you know how universally true that is.’
‘And yet,’ came in a low voice from Marian, ‘you say that you love me.’
‘You mean that I speak as if no such thing as love existed. But you asked me what I understood by success. I am speaking of worldly things. Now suppose I had said to you:
My one aim and desire in life is to win your love. Could you have believed me? Such phrases are always untrue; I don’t know how it can give anyone pleasure to hear them. But if I say to you: All the satisfactions I have described would be immensely heightened if they were shared with a woman who loved me – there is the simple truth.’
Marian’s heart sank. She did not want truth such as this; she would have preferred that he should utter the poor, common falsehoods. Hungry for passionate love, she heard with a sense of desolation all this calm reasoning. That Jasper was of cold temperament she had often feared; yet there was always the consoling thought that she did not see with perfect clearness into his nature. Now and then had come a flash, a hint of possibilities. She had looked forward with trembling eagerness to some sudden revelation; but it seemed as if he knew no word of the language which would have called such joyous response from her expectant soul.
‘We have talked for a long time,’ she said, turning her head as if his last words were of no significance. ‘As Dora is not coming, I think I will go now.’
She rose, and went towards the chair on which lay her out-of-door things. At once Jasper stepped to her side.
‘You will go without giving me any answer?’
‘Answer? To what?’
‘Will you be my wife?’
‘It is too soon to ask me that.’
‘Too soon? Haven’t you known for months that I thought of you with far more than friendliness?’
‘How was it possible I should know that? You have explained to me why you would not let your real feelings be understood.’
The reproach was merited, and not easy to be outfaced. He turned away for an instant, then with a sudden movement caught both her hands.
‘Whatever I have done or said or thought in the past, that is of no account now. I love you, Marian. I want you to be my wife. I have never seen any other girl who impressed me as you did from the first. If I had been weak enough to try to win anyone but you, I should have known that I had turned aside from the path of my true happiness. Let us forget for a moment all our circumstances. I hold your hands, and look into your face, and say that I love you. Whatever answer you give, I love you!’
Till now her heart had only fluttered a little; it was a great part of her distress that the love she had so long nurtured seemed shrinking together into some far corner of her being whilst she listened to the discourses which prefaced Jasper’s declaration. She was nervous, painfully self-conscious, touched with maidenly shame, but could not abandon herself to that delicious emotion which ought to have been the fulfilment of all her secret imaginings. Now at length there began a throbbing in her bosom. Keeping her face averted, her eyes cast down, she waited for a repetition of the note that was in that last ‘I love you.’ She felt a change in the hands that held hers – a warmth, a moist softness; it caused a shock through her veins.
He was trying to draw her nearer, but she kept at full arm’s length and looked irresponsive.
She wished to answer, but a spirit of perversity held her tongue.
‘Marian, don’t you love me? Or have I offended you by my way of speaking?’
Persisting, she at length withdrew her hands. Jasper’s face expressed something like dismay.
‘You have not offended me,’ she said. ‘But I am not sure that you don’t deceive yourself in thinking, for the moment, that I am necessary to your happiness.’
The emotional current which had passed from her flesh to his whilst their hands were linked, made him incapable of standing aloof from her. He saw that her face and neck were warmer hued, and her beauty became more desirable to him than ever yet.
‘You are more to me than anything else in the compass of life!’ he exclaimed, again pressing forward. ‘I think of nothing but you – you yourself – my beautiful, gentle, thoughtful Marian!’
His arm captured her, and she did not resist. A sob, then a strange little laugh, betrayed the passion that was at length unfolded in her.
‘You do love me, Marian?’
‘I love you.’
And there followed the antiphony of ardour that finds its first utterance – a subdued music, often interrupted, ever returning upon the same rich note.
Marian closed her eyes and abandoned herself to the luxury of the dream. It was her first complete escape from the world of intellectual routine, her first taste of life. All the pedantry of her daily toil slipped away like a cumbrous garment; she was clad only in her womanhood. Once or twice a shudder of strange self-consciousness went through her, and she felt guilty, immodest; but upon that sensation followed a surge of passionate joy, obliterating memory and forethought.
‘How shall I see you?’ Jasper asked at length. ‘Where can we meet?’
It was a difficulty. The season no longer allowed lingerings under the open sky, but Marian could not go to his lodgings, and it seemed impossible for him to visit her at her home.
‘Will your father persist in unfriendliness to me?’
She was only just beginning to reflect on all that was involved in this new relation.
‘I have no hope that he will change,’ she said sadly.
‘He will refuse to countenance your marriage?’
‘I shall disappoint him and grieve him bitterly. He has asked me to use my money in starting a new review.’
‘Which he is to edit?’
‘Yes. Do you think there would be any hope of its success?’
Jasper shook his head.
‘Your father is not the man for that, Marian. I don’t say it disrespectfully; I mean that he doesn’t seem to me to have that kind of aptitude. It would be a disastrous speculation.’
‘I felt that. Of course I can’t think of it now.’
She smiled, raising her face to his.
‘Don’t trouble,’ said Jasper. ‘Wait a little, till I have made myself independent of Fadge and a few other men, and your father shall see how heartily I wish to be of use to him. He will miss your help, I’m afraid?’
‘Yes. I shall feel it a cruelty when I have to leave him. He has only just told me that his sight is beginning to fail. Oh, why didn’t his brother leave him a little money? It was such unkindness! Surely he had a much better right than Amy, or than myself either. But literature has been a curse to father all his life. My uncle hated it, and I suppose that was why he left father nothing.’
‘But how am I to see you often? That’s the first question. I know what I shall do. I must take new lodgings, for the girls and myself, all in the same house. We must have two sitting-rooms; then you will come to my room without any difficulty. These astonishing proprieties are so easily satisfied after all.’
‘You will really do that?’
‘Yes. I shall go and look for rooms to-morrow. Then when you come you can always ask for Maud or Dora, you know. They will be very glad of a change to more respectable quarters.’
‘I won’t stay to see them now, Jasper,’ said Marian, her thoughts turning to the girls.
‘Very well. You are safe for another hour, but to make certain you shall go at a quarter to five. Your mother won’t be against us?’
‘Poor mother – no. But she won’t dare to justify me before father.’
‘I feel as if I should play a mean part in leaving it to you to tell your father. Marian, I will brave it out and go and see him.’
‘Oh, it would be better not to.’
‘Then I will write to him – such a letter as he can’t possibly take in ill part.’
Marian pondered this proposal.
‘You shall do that, Jasper, if you are willing. But not yet; presently.’
‘You don’t wish him to know at once?’
‘We had better wait a little. You know,’ she added laughing, ‘that my legacy is only in name mine as yet. The will hasn’t been proved. And then the money will have to be realised.’
She informed him of the details; Jasper listened with his eyes on the ground.
They were now sitting on chairs drawn close to each other. It was with a sense of relief that Jasper had passed from dithyrambs to conversation on practical points; Marian’s excited sensitiveness could not but observe this, and she kept watching the motions of his countenance. At length he even let go her hand.
‘You would prefer,’ he said reflectively, ‘that nothing should be said to your father until that business is finished?’
‘If you consent to it.’
‘Oh, I have no doubt it’s as well.’
Her little phrase of self-subjection, and its tremulous tone, called for another answer than this. Jasper fell again into thought, and clearly it was thought of practical things.
‘I think I must go now, Jasper,’ she said.
‘Must you? Well, if you had rather.’
He rose, though she was still seated. Marian moved a few steps away, but turned and approached him again.
‘Do you really love me?’ she asked, taking one of his hands and folding it between her own.
‘I do indeed love you, Marian. Are you still doubtful?’
‘You’re not sorry that I must go?’
‘But I am, dearest. I wish we could sit here undisturbed all through the evening.’
Her touch had the same effect as before. His blood warmed again, and he pressed her to his side, stroking her hair and kissing her forehead.
‘Are you sorry I wear my hair short?’ she asked, longing for more praise than he had bestowed on her.
‘Sorry? It is perfect. Everything else seems vulgar compared with this way of yours. How strange you would look with plaits and that kind of thing!’
‘I am so glad it pleases you.’
‘There is nothing in you that doesn’t please me, my thoughtful girl.’
‘You called me that before. Do I seem so very thoughtful?’
‘So grave, and sweetly reserved, and with eyes so full of meaning.’
She quivered with delight, her face hidden against his breast.
‘I seem to be new-born, Jasper. Everything in the world is new to me, and I am strange to myself. I have never known an hour of happiness till now, and I can’t believe yet that it has come to me.’
She at length attired herself, and they left the house together, of course not unobserved by the landlady. Jasper walked about half the way to St Paul’s Crescent. It was arranged that he should address a letter for her to the care of his sisters; but in a day or two the change of lodgings would be effected.
When they had parted, Marian looked back. But Jasper was walking quickly away, his head bent, in profound meditation.