VIOLA

That evening at dinner all the talk was about the war. General Leman’s
heroic stand at Liège had ended in surrender. King Albert’s government
had retired to Antwerp; the way was open for the enemy to Brussels, and
it was not yet certain whether Brussels would deliver itself up or
defend itself.

But the great news, now allowed to be known, was that the British
Expeditionary Force was all on French soil.

There was plenty to talk about. Lady Brent was pessimistic, and already
saw the Germans over-running Belgium. Wilbraham thought that when the
English and French once moved in concert the Germans would be rolled up
and rolled back like a carpet, and the end of the whole mad business
would come very soon afterwards. Mrs. Brent was inclined to agree with
him. She alone of the three had her eye anxiously upon Harry as she
spoke, with the fear working in her that, after all, he might be drawn
into the vortex. “It can’t go on for two years,” she said. “It
couldn’t go on for three years, could it?”

They laughed at her. “You may make yourself quite easy on that score,”
said Lady Brent.

To Harry it all seemed extremely unimportant. The conviction that,
whether it lasted one year or two years, or three, or ended before
Christmas, he would certainly be involved in it somehow had been
registered in his mind and could be laid aside until it should fulfil
itself. He did not want to think about it, still less to talk about it.
His personal connection with what was going on now, brought to his mind
that afternoon by his talk with Fred Armour, had faded from his mind;
and the tale of the war as it was being unfolded from day to day and as
it was being discussed by those about him, had little more interest for
him than the tale of a war centuries old which he might have studied
with Wilbraham.

Yet he joined in the talk from time to time, and if he said nothing that
had much effect upon the discussion he said whatever he did say in such
a way as to arouse no suspicion in the minds of his elders that his
thoughts were almost completely divorced from his speech.

The old dim hall in which they sat had its windows open to the night,
which was now quite still, with a sky of spangled velvet, broken into by
the dark spires of the cypresses in the garden. Harry could see them
through the window opposite to which he sat, and in the intervals of
talk he could hear the plash of the fountains. The thought came to him
that he would like to walk with Viola in the starlit garden. He would
like to show her this beautiful house of his; it would be a tribute to
her, and his own love of it would be enhanced by her praise. He looked
round at the hall and saw its carved and dusky splendour with new eyes.

They were dining at a table set in the oriel window facing on the
garden. The table was lit by candles in branched silver candlesticks.
On a heavy buffet by the door from the kitchens and buttery, under the
gallery and on serving tables, were other candles. There were perhaps a
dozen in all, and they gave what light was necessary, but left the
high-pitched, raftered roof just a-glimmer, and parts of the hall in
shadow. The portraits that hung above the dark wainscoting were dimly
seen, the gilded carving of the gallery and the screen beneath it glowed
softly where the candles shone upon it, and faded into rich dimness
beyond the circle of light.

Viola! She would love this old hall, and all the other stately rooms of
the ancient house. He had never thought of it, except very vaguely, as
belonging to him, but he thought of himself now as belonging to it. He
would like her to admire anything that had to do with him, and he would
like her to share his admiration.

But such thoughts as these were a very small part of what was rioting
through his mind. His chief feeling about his immediate surroundings
was one of strangeness that he should be sitting there quietly dining
and talking upon unimportant matters which had nothing to do with Viola.
It was to connect her with them that he took notice of them at all, and
he looked out more often into the still starlit garden, because it was
under the sky that he had met her and talked to her, and her alliance
with the things of nature that he loved was already fixed and
established. All beautiful aspects of the world, and of the fair places
in his own world, connected themselves naturally with her. She filled
every corner of his mind, and to whatever source of familiar delight he
turned she seemed to be there before him.

After dinner, on summer nights, Harry often walked in the garden with
his mother. Lady Brent never went out, but sat with her book in the
drawing-room. Wilbraham spent half an hour in the library, smoking and
reading, and then came into the drawing-room to play the piano or to
talk until they went to bed at ten o’clock. When they heard the first
notes of the piano, Harry and his mother would go indoors. If they
lingered, Lady Brent would send Wilbraham out for them, on the plea of
the night air being dangerous, or, if the night was so warm that that
seemed too absurd, of its being time for Harry to go to bed. She did
not like these garden confabulations between mother and son, but never
showed it except by confining them thus to the half-hour after dinner.

To-night Harry half hoped that his mother would not come out with him.
He wanted to be alone, but reproached himself for the desire as she
asked him to fetch her shawl and smiled at him with the pleasure
manifest in her face. He knew how much it meant to her to have him for
this quiet half-hour to herself. It was the only one in the long day
that she could call her own. He was left free to his own duties and
devices, except for the times when all of them were together. With his
youthful sense of fairness he knew that both his mother and grandmother
left him free in this way for his sake and not for theirs. He must not
grudge them the short time that he was expected to be with them. And he
had taken a pleasure himself in these little garden wanderings with his
mother that arose not only from the satisfaction of giving her pleasure.
He loved her—more than he loved anybody—and had a man’s sense of
protection towards her. He did not know yet that he loved Viola. The
idea of love had not yet occurred to him in connection with her. As he
ran upstairs to get his mother’s shawl, the thought crossed his mind
that he had never yet wanted to get away from his mother for the time he
was accustomed to devote himself to her, and puzzled him a little.

He was more than usually kind to her as they walked up and down the long
bowling green together between the close-clipped yew hedges. He made an
effort to dispossess his mind of what was filling it, and to be to her
what he would have been but for the thrilling adventure that had
befallen him. The only sign of all that was hidden from her—and she had
no clue to its meaning—was when he said that the garden made him feel
shut in, and asked her to walk in the park with him.

She felt his tenderness and palpitated with happiness over it. If she
had but known that the time had come when she was less to him than she
had ever been, and that his kindness and gentleness were but vicarious
tributes meant, though all unconsciously, to take the place of the love
that must soon be withdrawn from spending itself only on her, and given
to another! But these wounds to a mother’s love were spared her for
to-night. She thought he was nearer than ever to her, and all thoughts
of losing him were far from her.

She ventured to talk of her fear of the war taking him from her, and he
soothed her, laughing at her fears. He did not tell her of his
conviction that it would do so, nor feel any desire to tell her. What
he did feel a half-shrinking desire to do was to tell her about Viola.
But an instinct which he did not understand prevented him, and the
moment they had parted he was glad that he had resisted the impulse.
The secret was not his alone. It gave him joy to think that it was a
secret, and that it was not his alone.

Wilbraham called out for them. They went in, and Harry said good-night
at once and went upstairs. He was no longer sent to bed before the
rest, but no objection was ever made if he went.

When he was alone in his room he breathed relief. His mother, perhaps,
would come in on her way to bed, but otherwise he would be alone for the
hours of the night, and yet so much not alone. He thought that to-night
his mother would certainly come, and he undressed quickly so that when
he should hear her he could get into bed and pretend to be asleep. This
small piece of deception did not trouble him, since it would not trouble
her. He had never given her what he owed her. Now he wanted to think
uninterruptedly of Viola.

He leaned out of the window with his chin on his hands and gazed at the
dark masses of trees in front of him and at the starry roof of the sky
above them, which was above her, too. His window was on the same side
of the house as that of the room in which Grant had slept the year
before, but the trees were nearer to it. He gazed more at the sky than
at the trees. Yes, in that direction, almost directly in front of him,
lay the cottage in which she was—now at this very minute. It was a
moving thought. Perhaps she was asleep, perhaps she was looking at the
same stars as he was. Perhaps she was thinking of him, as he was
thinking of her. That was a very stirring thought, and led him to shift
his position. He wanted to be in motion as he thought of her. Later on,
when the house was all asleep, he would dress and go out. For the
present he could only walk about his room, when the waves of emotion
that came to him stirred him from his place at the window.

But he could not think like that. He did not know what to think about.
His impatience grew for the time to come when he should be alone and
undisturbed. Then he would be able to think, out there under the stars.
The trees oppressed him, as they had never done before. He got into
bed. He would lie and think there until his mother had come and gone.
But the moment he got into bed he fell asleep, and did not awake when
she came in softly, shielding the light of her candle from his eyes.

How beautiful he looked as he lay there, his head slightly turned on the
pillow and one arm and hand along his side on the counterpane—and how
innocent! How she loved him for that beauty and innocence! She felt it
as uplifting her from the lower plane of unrest and petulance upon which
she was apt to move. She blessed him for the calming, purifying
thoughts which he brought to her, and took comfort to herself in the
thoughts that there must be something good in herself since it was
partly owing to her influence that he was so free from evil. Yes, he
was hers; her own dear child whom she loved, and who loved her. She had
set herself aside and allowed another to direct his life and hers. Soon
he would be free from that tutelage, but not from the bonds that her
love had woven around him. She would reap her reward. Oh, it was a
blessed thing to bear children, and after long years to have them as a
prop and stay, as well as a solace. Not for many years would he leave
her, in spirit, though in body they would sometimes be parted. She must
be more to him now than she had ever been, and when the time came to
give him up to another she would not complain, since she would have had
him so perfectly for a time.

It was nearly two o’clock when Harry awoke, suddenly, and in complete
possession of himself. He might have thought that he had not slept at
all, but that the moon shining in at his window told him the hour as
plainly as if it had been called in his ear.

He sprang out of bed and began to put on his clothes, but paused for a
moment, asking himself why he was in such a hurry to do so.

As happens so often in sleep, the perplexities with which he had lain
down seemed to have resolved themselves without conscious process. He
had wanted to ask himself what had happened to him, but it seemed now as
if some romantic mist had cleared away from his brain and nothing in
particular had happened to him—nothing, at least, that needed any
careful process of self-examination. He had met a very charming and
friendly girl, and he was going to meet her again in the day that was
already moving towards dawn. That would be very agreeable, but what was
there in it to have put him into the state in which he had lived through
the evening?




But, as the thought of meeting her again with half the hours of darkness
already gone—presented itself to him, he felt again the glow of pleasure
and anticipation. Yes, he wanted to think about her, and he could think
best about her out in the open.

He dressed quickly and dropped from his window onto the grass, which was
not more than ten feet or so below him. And now he seemed to be more
master of himself, as he passed across a strip of moonlit green and into
the dimness of the wood. He was reminded of the night in which the
vision of the fairies dancing had come to him. Now it was full summer
and then spring had only been on its way; his long-trained sense marked
the difference in a thousand little signs. But that had been a night of
silver moonshine, as this was. The contact with nature was clear on
such quiet, illumined nights as this.

Viola!

She grew slowly upon him as he trod the soft grass or the dry crackling
beech-mast. Her face, somewhat to his surprise, he could not call up
before him, though he tried to see it with his inward eye. But he dwelt
upon the slight supple figure that had moved beside him so freely and so
gracefully. It gave him pleasure to recall her slender hand, which had
lain in his, and he remembered her feet and ankles in their neat brown
shoes and stockings, and the fall of her skirt over them, and the little
hat of soft white straw with its twisted ribbon.

Again he was a little puzzled at the effect these memories had upon him.
He had an eye for beauty of animate form. He loved the grace of certain
animals; he and Wilbraham together had taken delight in pictures of
Greek statuary and vase painting, with special reference to that beauty;
he had admired the quick, clean limbs of the two children with whom he
had been so much, and of other children of the village, older or
younger. But it had been purely an æsthetic pleasure, and had brought
with it none of the emotion with which the thought of Viola moved him.

He was a little frightened of this emotion and inclined to resist it;
but something out of the soft night whispered to him that its current
was one with all the emotions upon which he had fed, and grown in
feeding. It was part of the secret which he had only half divined at
the end of that vigil which seemed to have marked a stage in his life.

His joy in the thought of her increased. He recalled the tones of her
voice, and the ring of her happy laughter, and dwelt upon things that
she had said. They were nothing; they might have been said by anybody;
none of them at which he smiled to himself were so worth remembering as
the things that little Jane often said and he had remembered afterwards,
smiling at them too, but not with that tenderness of feeling towards
them.

He came to the park wall, where there was a door to which he kept the
key. He seldom went outside the park on his night roamings. The woods
continued here for some distance before the open ground was reached,
though by the ride he had taken in the afternoon they ended with the
wall, in which there was another locked gate. If he wanted to go on to
the moor at night, and stand beneath the open sky, with nothing about
him but space, it was by that path that he reached it. But he seemed to
have had a purpose, unknown to him, in making for this door, and when he
reached it he had no thought but for passing beyond the bounds of the
park. It was by that path that the cottage in which Viola was could be
reached most directly. He knew when he came to the door, but not
before, that he meant to go to it.

He had left the key behind, but scaled the wall, not without some
difficulty, and went on through the wood. By and by he came to a garden
fence, and there beyond it, across the fruit bushes and the untidy
tangle of late summer, was the cottage, low and thatched and
whitewashed, in which she was sleeping.

He stood still and drew his breath.

Viola!

There was a little dormer window in the thatch, open. It might be that
of the room in which she was sleeping. A cottager would not sleep in a
room with the window open. He tried to remember what the cottage was
like inside, and what rooms would be most likely to be given up to
visitors. It seemed to him of the utmost importance to have it settled
which was Viola’s room.

He moved round to the front of the cottage, treading softly on the turf
lest a sound should reveal his presence. Perhaps she was awake. It was
not part of their secret that he should come out at night to gaze at her
window. He must not reveal himself.

The wood extended a little way on to the moor by the side of the
cottage. It was the point that had hidden it from them in the
afternoon. But it faced open ground across a narrow fenced-in strip of
garden. The whole of its front could be seen obliquely from the wood.

He stood in the shadow of a giant holly—and saw her.

She was sitting at a window, her chin resting on her hand, looking out
across the moor to where the sea lay gleaming in the radiance of the
moon. She was in white; her dusky hair lay about her shoulders and
framed her young face, in which the dark eyes were set.

It was only a glimpse that he had of her, for he stole silently away,
abashed at having surprised a revelation not meant for his eyes.

But it was like the glimpse that he had had of the fairies dancing. It
thrilled and calmed him at the same time. He knew now that the fairies
had not revealed all the secret to him. Viola was the secret, towards
which all his life and all that he had learned of nature had been
leading him. Viola lay at the warm, sweet heart of it all. Everything
was changed by that vision he had had of her, and soon he would see her
and tell her so.