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That night it was a kindly fashion, for we sat about the table with our faces veiled in shadow, and seemed to listen in quiet contentment to the talk of our man who had come back to us. Yet all through the meal I was near to weeping, because whenever he thought himself unobserved he looked at the things that were familiar to him. Dipping his head, he would glance sidewise at the old oak paneling, and nearer things he figured as though sight were not intimate enough a contact. His hand caressed the arm of his chair, because he remembered the black gleam of it, stole out and touched the recollected salt-cellar.
Was Baldry Court so sleek a place that the unhappy felt offenders there? Then we had all been living wickedly, and he, too. As his fingers glided here and there he talked bravely about non-committal things: to what ponies we had been strapped when at the age of five we were introduced to the hunting-field; how we had teased to be allowed to keep swans in the pond above the wood, and how the yellow bills of our intended pets had sent us shrieking homeward; and all the dear life that makes the bland English countryside secretly adventurous.
Then he raised his head again, brisk with another subject. He sat back in his chair as though his heart had stopped. When the butler who is not Griffiths had left the room he spoke gruffly. He sighed deeply in a shuddering horror. He was a good man. Even to me he would give no trust, because it was Jenny the girl who had been his friend and not Jenny the woman. All the inhabitants at this new tract of time were his enemies, all its circumstances his prison-bars.
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There was suspicion in the gesture with which, when we were back in the drawing-room he picked up the flannel from the work-table. His mother had been a hard-riding woman, not apt with her needle. Kitty huddled carelessly by the fire, her hands over her face, unheeding by its red glow she looked not so virginal and bride-like; so I think she was too distracted even to plan.
I went to the piano. Through this evening of sentences cut short because their completed meaning was always sorrow, of normal life dissolved to tears, the chords of Beethoven sounded serenely. I could have told that you would have chosen to play German music this night of all nights. As I played I wondered if things like this happened when Purcell wrote such music, empty of everything except laughter and simple greeds and satisfactions and at worst the wail of unrequited love.
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Why had modern life brought forth these horrors, which made the old tragedies seem no more than nursery-shows? And the sky also is different. Behind Chris's head, as he halted at the open window, a search-light turned all ways in the night, like a sword brandished among the stars. You shall see as much of her as you like. I was amazed at Kitty's beautiful act and more amazed to find that it had made her face ugly. Her eyes snapped as they met mine. Her silver shoe tapped the floor; she pinched her lips for some moments. Other women do.
Teddy Rex keeps a Gaiety girl, and Mrs. Rex has to grin and bear it. It means that Chris is a man like other men. But I did think that bad women were pretty. I suppose he 's had so much to do with pretty ones that a plain one 's a change. I gripped her small shoulders with my large hands, and shook her till her jewels rattled and she scratched my fingers and gasped for breath.
But I did not mind so long as she was silent. Chris spoke from the darkness. He came and stood over us, running his hand through his hair unhappily. It is how you feel, I know.
It 's been a horrid night. We smiled sadly at each other as we sat down by the fire, and I perceived that, perhaps because I was flushed and looked younger, he felt more intimate with me than he had yet done since his return. Indeed, in the warm, friendly silence that followed he was like a patient when tiring visitors have gone and he is left alone with his trusted nurse; smiled under drooped lids and then paid me the high compliment of disregard.
His limbs relaxed, he sank back into his chair. I watched him vigilantly, and was ready at that moment when thought intruded into his drowsings and his face began to twitch. I asked: "You can't remember her at all? I know how she bows when you meet her in the street, how she dresses when she goes to church. All that a wife should be she 's been to you.
His silence compelled me to look at him, and I found his eyes, cold and incredulous and frightened, on me. She is your wife, and this place is changed, and it 's better and jollier in all sorts of ways, believe me, and fifteen years have passed. Why, Chris, can't you see that I have grown old? I 'll never tell. His elbows were on his knees, and his hands stroked his thick tarnished hair. I could not see his face, but I knew that his skin was red and that his gray eyes were wet and bright. Then suddenly he lifted his chin and laughed, like a happy swimmer breaking through a wave that has swept him far inshore.
He glowed with a radiance that illuminated the moment till my blood tingled and I began to rub my hands together and laugh, too. But you don't know old Monkey. Let me tell you. From Uncle Ambrose's gates, it seems, one took the path across the meadow where Whiston's cows are put to graze, passed through the second stile—the one between the two big alders—into a long straight road that ran across the flat lands to Bray.
After a mile or so there branched from it a private road that followed a line of noble poplars down to the ferry. Between two of them—he described it meticulously, as though it were of immense significance—there stood a white hawthorn.
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This was the Monkey Island Inn. The third Duke of Marlborough had built it for a "folly," and perching there with nothing but a line of walnut-trees and a fringe of lawn between it and the fast, full, shining Thames, it had an eighteenth-century grace and silliness. Well, one sounded the bell that hung on a post, and presently Margaret in a white dress would come out of the porch and would walk to the stone steps down to the river. Invariably, as she passed the walnut-tree that overhung the path, she would pick a leaf, crush it, and sniff the sweet scent; and as she came near the steps she would shade her eyes and peer across the water.
I did not say that I had seen her, for, indeed, this Margaret I had never seen. A sudden serene gravity would show that she had seen one, and she would get into the four-foot punt that was used as a ferry and bring it over very slowly, with rather stiff movements of her long arms, to exactly the right place. When she had got the punt up on the gravel her serious brow would relax, and she would smile at one and shake hands and say something friendly, like, "Father thought you 'd be over this afternoon, it being so fine; so he 's saved some duck's eggs for tea. It was so good to sit in the punt by the landing-stage while Margaret dabbled her hands in the black waters and forgot her shyness as one talked.
She 's charity and love itself. If people drifted in to tea one had to talk to her while she cut the bread and butter and the sandwiches in the kitchen, but in this year of floods few visitors cared to try the hard rowing below Bray Lock. So usually one sat down there in the boat, talking with a sense of leisure, as though one had all the rest of one's life in which to carry on this conversation, and noting how the reflected ripple of the water made a bright, vibrant, mark upon her throat, and other effects of the scene upon her beauty, until the afternoon grew drowsy, and she said, "Father will be wanting his tea.
He was a little man, with a tuft of copper-colored hair rising from the middle of his forehead like a clown's curl, who shook hands hard and explained very soon that he was a rough diamond. Then they all had tea under the walnut-tree where the canary's cage was hanging, and the ducks' eggs would be brought out, and Mr. Margaret would sit quiet, round-eyed at the world's ways, and shy because of Chris. So they would sit on that bright lawn until the day was dyed with evening blue, and Mr. Allington was more and more often obliged to leap into the punt to chase his ducks, which had started on a trip to Bray Lock, or to crawl into the undergrowth after rabbits similarly demoralized by the dusk.
Then Chris would say he had to go, and they would stand in a communing silence while the hearty voice of Mr.
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Allington shouted from midstream or under the alder-boughs a disregarded invitation to stay and have a bite of supper. Chris explained this part of his story stumblingly; but I, too, have watched people I loved in the dusk, and I know what he meant. As she sat in the punt while he ferried himself across it was no longer visible that her fair hair curled differently and that its rather wandering parting was a little on one side; that her straight brows, which were a little darker than her hair, were nearly always contracted in a frown of conscientious speculation; that her mouth and chin were noble, yet as delicate as flowers; that her shoulders were slightly hunched because her young body, like a lily-stem, found it difficult to manage its own tallness.
She was then just a girl in white who lifted a white face or drooped a dull-gold head. That he loved her in this twilight, which obscured all the physical details which he adored, seemed to him a guarantee that theirs was a changeless love which would persist if she were old or maimed or disfigured.
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He stood beside the crazy post where the bell hung and watched the white figure take the punt over the black waters, mount the gray steps, and assume some of their grayness, become a green shade in the green darkness of the foliage-darkened lawn, and he exulted in that guarantee. How long this went on he had forgotten; but it continued for some time before there came the end of his life, the last day he could remember.
I was barred out of that day. His lips told me of its physical appearances, while from his wet, bright eyes and his flushed skin, his beautiful signs of a noble excitement, I tried to derive the real story. The whole world seemed melting into light. Cumulus-clouds floated very high, like lumps of white light, against a deep, glowing sky, and dropped dazzling reflections on the beaming Thames.
The trees moved not like timber, shocked by wind, but floatingly, like weeds at the bottom of a well of sunshine. When Margaret came out of the porch and paused, as she always did, to crush and smell the walnut-leaf and shade her eyes with her hand, her white dress shone like silver. I 'll come and see you all the same. That afternoon they did not sit in the punt by the landing-stage, but wandered about the island and played with the rabbits and looked at the ducks and were inordinately silent. For a long time they stood in the fringe of rough grass on the other side of the island, and Margaret breathed contentedly that the Thames was so beautiful.
Chris said he would take her down to Dorney Lock in the skiff, and she got in very silently and obediently; but as soon as they were out in midstream she developed a sense of duty, and said she could not leave the inn with just that boy to look after it.
And then she went into the kitchen and, sucking in her lower lip for shyness, very conscientiously cut piles of bread and butter in case some visitors came to tea. Just when Chris was convincing her of the impossibility of any visitors arriving they came, a fat woman in a luscious pink blouse and an old chap who had been rowing in a tweed waistcoat.