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CHAPTER IV.

"DREAMING, SHE KNEW IT WAS A DREAM."

Isola and Lostwithiel met a good many times after that walk through the autumn mists. She tried her utmost to avoid him. She went for fewer walks than of old; nay, she chiefly confined her perambulations to those domestic errands which Tabitha imposed upon her, and such afternoon visits as she felt it incumbent upon her to pay, in strict return for visits paid to her. Major Disney had begged her to be exact in such small ceremonies, and to keep upon the best possible terms with his friends. "I love[Pg 51] every soul in the place, for old sake's sake," he told her; and for old sake's sake Isola had to cultivate the people her husband had known all his life.

She tried to avoid Lostwithiel, but Fate was against her, and they met. He was unvaryingly courteous. He said no word which could offend the most sensitive of women. Prudery itself could have had no ground for alarm. He did not again allude to the ball, or his wishes upon that point. He talked of those common topics of interest to which every day and every season give rise, even in a Cornish village; and yet in this common talk acquaintance ripened until it became friendship unawares. And then—as all sense of shyness and reserve upon Isola's part gave way to a vague, reposeful feeling, like drifting down a sunlit river, with never a breath of chilling wind—they began to exchange confidences about their past lives. Unawares Martin Disney's wife found herself entering into the minutest details about the people she had met on that level road of a monotonous girlhood by which she had come to be what she was. Unawares she betrayed all her feelings and opinions, her likes and dislikes, and even the little weaknesses and eccentricities of her parents—her sister—her wealthy brother-in-law. Never before had she found so good a listener. Her husband had been all affectionate interest in the things that concerned her; yet she had often discovered that his mind was wandering in the midst of some girlish reminiscence; and he had a tiresome trick of forgetting all those particulars about her friends which would have enabled him to distinguish the personages of a story. He had to be told everything afresh at each recurrence of those names that were so familiar to her. Nor had he Lostwithiel's keen sense of humour, and quick perception of the ridiculous side of life, whereby many a small social sketch fell flat.

The glimpses she caught of her new friend's past existence enthralled her. It was to see new vistas opening into unknown worlds; the world of university life; the world of[Pg 52] society, English and continental, with all its varieties of jargon; the world of politics, and literature, and art. It charmed him to see her interest in all those unknown things and people.

"You would very soon be tired of it, and would come back to Trelasco—like the hare to her form—or like me," he said, smiling at her ardent look. "Believe me, it is all dust and ashes. My happiest hours have been on board a yacht, with only half a dozen good books, and ten or a dozen ignoramuses in blue serge for my companions."

She was to go to the Hunt Ball after all; not because he wished it, but because other people had taken her affairs in hand, and decided that she should go. Dr. and Mrs. Baynham had decided for her. Mrs. Vansittart Crowther had decided for her, and had sent her a ticket with her love by that very footman whose appearance when he opened the door always crushed her, and who had given her a frightful shock when she danced into the kitchen to speak to Tabitha, and found him meekly sitting on a Windsor chair, with his knees drawn up nearly to his chin. Lastly, Tabitha had decided; and Tabitha's opinion went for more than that of anybody else.

"You want a little bit of change and gaiety," said the faithful stewardess. "You have been looking pale and worried ever since you had that bad news from Broomer," this was Tabitha's nearest approach to Burmah, "and you'll be all the better for an evening's pleasure. It isn't as if you had to buy a dress, or even a pair of gloves. You've only worn your wedding-dress at three parties since you came home from your honeymoon, and it's as fresh as if you'd been married yesterday. You've got everything, and everything of the best. Why shouldn't you go?"

Isola could advance no reason, except her vague fear that her husband might not approve of her appearing at a public ball without him; but at this objection honest Tabitha snapped her fingers.

[Pg 53]

"I'll answer for Mr. Martin," she said. "He'll be pleased for you to enjoy yourself. 'Don't let her mope while I'm away, Tabby,' he said to me the day before he started for foreign parts. He'd like you to be at the ball. You'll have Mrs. Baynham to take care of you, and what can you want more than that, I should like to know?"

Mrs. Baynham, the portly doctor's wife, was, in Tabitha's mind, the representative of all the respectabilities. How could a girl just out of her teens—a girl who loved dancing, and had been told she danced exquisitely—turn a deaf ear to such arguments, put forward by the person to whose care her husband had in some wise confided her. If Tabitha approved, Isola thought she could not do wrong in yielding; so the simply-fashioned white satin gown—made in Paris, and with all Parisian chic—was taken out of the pot-pourri perfumed drawer. Gloves and fan, and little white slippers were passed in review. There was nothing wanted. The carefullest housewife need not have hesitated on the score of economy.

So the question was finally settled—she was to go to the Hunt Ball. A fly was engaged for her especial service, so that she might not crowd Mrs. Baynham, who was to take two fresh, fat-cheeked nieces, who looked as if they had been fed from infancy upwards upon apple pasties and clotted cream. She was to drive to Lostwithiel in the fly from the Maypole Inn, and she was to join Mrs. Baynham in the cloak-room, and make her entrance under that lady's wing.

This final decision was arrived at about ten days before the event, and for nine of those intervening days Isola's life went by as if she were always sitting in that imaginary boat drifting down a sunlit river; but on the day of the dance, after just half an hour's quiet walk with Lostwithiel on the towpath, she went back to the cottage pale as ashes; and sat down at her little davenport in the drawing-room, trembling, breathless, and on the verge of hysteria.

She opened the drawers of the davenport one after another, looking for something—helplessly, confusedly, as one whose[Pg 54] brain is half distraught. It was ten minutes before she found what she wanted—a sheaf of telegram forms.

"To Major Disney, Cornwall Fusiliers, Rangoon.—Let me go to you at once. I am miserable. My heart will break if you leave me here."

This was the gist of a message which she wrote half a dozen times, in different words, upon half a dozen forms. Then she tore up all but the last, threw that into a drawer, and began to pace the room feverishly, with her hands clasped before her face.

What fever-fraught vision was it that those hands tried to shut out from her burning eyes? So little had happened—so little—only half an hour's quiet walk along the towpath, where the leafless willows had a grim, uncanny look, like those trees whose old grey branches seemed the arms of the Erlking's daughters, beckoning the child as he nestled in his father's arms, riding through the night. So little—so little—and yet it meant the lifting of a veil—the passage from happy innocence to the full consciousness of an unholy love. It meant what one kiss on trembling lips meant for Paolo and Francesca. It meant the plunge into a gulf of dark despair—unless she had strength to draw back, seeing the abyss at her feet, warned of her danger.

What had he said? Only a few agitated words—only a revelation. He loved her, loved her with all the passion of his passionate soul; loved her as he had never loved before. They all tell the same story, these destroyers of innocence; and, for that one burning moment, they all mean what they say. Every seducer has his hour of sublime truthfulness; of generous feeling; of ardent heroic aspirations; the hour in which he would perish for the woman he loves; cut off his right hand; burn out his eyes; leap off a monument; do anything except surrender her, except forego his privilege to destroy her.

It was not too late. The warning had come in time—just in time to save her. She knew now to what ocean that drifting boat was carrying her—through the sunny atmo[Pg 55]sphere, between the flowery shores of dreamland. It was taking her to the arctic ocean of shame and ruin—the great sea strewn with the corpses of women who had sinned, and suffered, and repented, and died—unforgiven of mankind—to wait the tribunal of God.

"Oh, lor!" cried Tabitha, bursting into the room. "I thought you were never coming home. You ought to go and lay down for two or three hours after your tea, or we shall have you fainting away before the night's over. You've not been eating enough for a healthy canary bird for the last week."

"I'm not very well, Tabbie. I don't think I'll go to the ball."

"Not go! and when the fly's ordered—and will have to be paid for whether or no; for Masters told me he could have let it twelve deep. Not go! and disappoint Mrs. Baynham, who has set her heart on taking you; and Mrs. Crowther, who gave you the ticket! Why, it would never do! You'll feel well enough when you're there. You won't know whether you're standing on your head or your heels. It's past five o'clock, and your tea has been ready in the study since a quarter to."

"How do you send telegrams to India, Tabitha?"

"Lor, ma'am, how should I know? From the post-office, I suppose, pretty much like other telegrams. But they cost no end of money, I'll be bound. You're not wanting to send a telegram to the major, are you, ma'am, to ask his leave about the ball?"

"No; I was only wondering," Isola answered feebly.

She shut and locked the davenport, leaving her message in the drawer. She meant to send it—if not to-day, to-morrow; if not before the ball, after the ball. She felt that her only hope of peace and safety and a clear conscience was at her husband's side. She must go out to him yonder in the unknown land. She must get to him somehow, with or without his leave—with or without his help. She would[Pg 56] brave anything, hazard anything to be with that faithful friend and defender—her first love—her brave, self-denying, God-fearing lover. She felt as if there were no other safety or shelter for her in all the world.

"God will not help me unless I help myself," she muttered distractedly, as she sat in her low chair by the fire, with her head flung back upon the cushions and the untouched meal at her side. Tabitha had left off providing dinner for her, at her particular request. She had neither heart to sit down alone to a formal dinner nor appetite to eat it; so Tabitha had exercised all her skill as a cook, which was great, in preparing a dainty little supper at nine o'clock; and it had irked her that her mistress did such scant justice to the tempting meal.

Isola fell asleep by the fire, comforted by the warmth, worn out by nights that had been made sleepless by vague agitation—by the living over again of accidental meetings, and friendly conversations—not by fear or remorse—for it was only this day that the danger of that growing friendship had been revealed to her. It was only to-day that she knew what such friendships mean. She slept a feverish sleep, from sheer exhaustion, and dreamt fever-dreams.

Those willows on the bank had recalled Goethe's "Erl K?nig"—the ballad she had learnt by rote in her earliest German studies—and the willows and the ballad were interwoven with her dreams. It was Martin Disney who was riding his charger along a dark road, and she was sitting in front of his saddle, clinging to him, hiding her face upon his breast, and the willows were beckoning—she knew those gaunt arms were beckoning to her, although her eyes were hidden—and he was following. He was thundering behind them, on a black horse. Yes, and then the dream changed—the dreamer's wandering thoughts directed by another reminiscence of those girlish studies in German poetry. She was Lenore, and she was in the arms of her dead lover. She felt that bony arm—Death's arm—clutching her round the waist. Her streaming hair mingled with the streaming[Pg 57] mane of that unearthly horse. She was with Lostwithiel—in his arms—and they were both dead and both happy—happy in being together. What did they want more than that?

"Vollbracht, vollbracht ist unser Lauf!
Das Hochzeitbette, thut sich auf!
Die Todten reiten schnelle!
Wir sind, wir sind, zur Stelle."

She woke with the chill of the charnel-house freezing her blood. The fire had gone out. Tim had curled himself at her feet in the folds of her gown. The Persian was staring discontentedly at the ashes in the grate, and Tabitha's sturdy footsteps might be heard in the room above, bustling to and fro, and anon poking the fire, and putting on coals, making all snug and ready for her mistress's toilet.

Isola rang, and Susan, the parlour-maid, brought in the lamp.

"I came twice before, ma'am; but you were fast asleep, so I took the lamp back to the pantry."

Isola looked at the clock. Ten minutes to nine, and she was to meet Mrs. Baynham in the cloak-room at half-past ten. Ten o'clock was the hour on the card, and the fat-faced nieces were feverishly afraid that all the eligible partners would be snapped up by those wise virgins who appeared earliest on the scene.

"You won't keep us waiting in the cloak-room, will you, dear Mrs. Disney?" they pleaded coaxingly.

Was she to put on her finery and go! There would be time yet to send a note to Mrs. Baynham, excusing herself on the score of illness. The doctor's party would not start before half-past nine. What was she to do? Oh, she wanted to see him once more—just once more—in the brightly-lighted rooms, amidst a crowd—in a place where he would have no chance of repeating those wicked, wicked words—of forgetting all that was due to his own honour and to hers. In the crowded ball-room there would be[Pg 58] safety—safety even from evil thoughts. Who could think of anything amidst the sound of dance music, the dazzle of lamps and flashing of jewels?

She wanted to go to the ball, to wear her satin gown, to steep herself in light and music; and thus to escape from the dim horrors of that awful dream.

Tabitha seemed like a good angel, when she came in at this juncture with a fresh cup of tea and a plate of dainty little chicken sandwiches.

"Come now, ma'am, I shan't let you go to the ball if you don't take these. What, not a bit of fire—and you asleep here in the cold? What was that addle-pated Susan thinking about, I wonder? I'll take the tray upstairs. There's a lovely fire in your room, and everything ready for you to dress. I want to be able to tell Mr. Martin that his young wife was the belle of the ball."

Isola allowed herself to be led upstairs to the bright, cheerful bedroom, with its pretty chintz-pattern paper, and photographs, and artistic muslin curtains, and glowing fire, and toilet-table, with its glitter of crystal and silver in the pleasant candlelight. She suffered herself to be fed and dressed by Tabitha's skilful hands, almost as if she had been a child; and she came out of her dismal dream into the glad waking world, a radiant figure, with violet eyes and alabaster complexion, flushed by the loveliest hectic. The simply-made, close-fitting bodice, with folded crape veiling the delicate bust, and the pure pearly tint of the satin, set off her fragile beauty, while the long train and massive folds of the rich fabric gave statuesque grace to her tall, slim figure; but the crowning glory of her toilette was the garland of white chrysanthemums, for which Tabitha had ransacked all the neighbouring green-houses; a garland of fluffy, feathery petals, which reached in a diagonal line from her shoulder to the hem of her gown. It was her only ornament, for by some strange caprice she refused to wear the modest pearl necklace and diamond cross which had been her husband's wedding gift.

[Pg 59]

"Not to-night, Tabbie," she said; and Tabitha saw in this refusal only the coquetry of a lovely woman, who wanted to show the great ladies and squire's wives how poor and common diamonds are by the side of youth and beauty.

"Well, you don't want any jewels, certainly," said Tabitha. "You look as if you were going to be married—all but the veil. Those chrysanthemums are ever so much prettier than orange blossoms. There's the fly. Let me put on your cloak. It's a beautiful night, and almost as mild as May. Everybody will be at the ball. There's nothing to keep folks away. Well, I do wish the major was here to go with you. Wouldn't he be proud?"

The stars were shining when Isola went along the gravel path to the gate where Masters' fly was waiting, with blazing lamps, which seemed to put those luminous worlds yonder to shame. There was no carriage-drive to the hall door of the Angler's Nest. The house retained all its ancient simplicity, and ignored the necessities of carriage people. Tabitha wrapped her mistress's fur-lined cloak close round her, before she stepped into the fly, which was provided with those elaborate steps that seem peculiar to the hired brougham.

"Good night, Tabitha, and thank you for all the pains you've taken in dressing me—and for the lovely wreath. I shall come home early. I shan't wait for Mrs. Baynham's party."

"Don't you hurry," said Tabitha, heartily. "The Hunt Ball only comes once a year, and you'd better make the most of it. I shan't mind sitting up; and perhaps I shan't be half so dull as you think for."

The flyman shut the door, which nobody but himself could shut—another peculiarity of hired broughams. The fly vanished in the darkness, and Tabitha ran back to the house, where she found Susan waiting at the hall door in her jacket and hat, as near a reproduction of Mrs. Disney's jacket and hat as local circumstances—or the difference between Bond Street and Lostwithiel—would allow.

"Have you locked and bolted the back doors?" asked[Pg 60] Tabitha; "but, lor, I'll go and look myself; I won't trust to your giddy young brains. Mr. Tinkerly will be here with the cart directly. I've only got to put on my bonnet and dolman, after I've taken a look round, and put away Mrs. Disney's jewel-box."

Tabitha was no light-minded housekeeper, but she had her hours of frivolity, and she loved pleasure with the innocent freshness of a most transparent soul. Tinkerly, the butcher, had offered to drive the two ladies—Tabitha and Susan—into Lostwithiel in his tax cart, and, furthermore, to place them where they would see something of the ball, or at least of the company arriving and departing, and beyond all this to give them a snack of supper, "Just something to bite at and a glass of beer," he told Tabitha deprecatingly, lest he should raise hopes beyond his power of realization.

He meant to do the thing as handsomely as circumstances would permit, certainly to the extent of cold boiled beef and pickles, with Guinness or Bass. He was a family man, of irreproachable respectability, and his meat was supposed to be unmatchable for thirty miles round. He grew it himself, upon those picturesque pastures which sloped skyward, dipping towards the blue of the river, rising towards the blue of the sky.

No precaution of lock, bolt, or bar did Tabitha neglect before she put on her best bonnet, and dignified black cloth dolman, heavy with imitation Astrachan. She and Susan were standing at the gate when Tinkerly drove up with his skittish mare and spring cart, a cart so springy that it threatened to heel over altogether when Tabitha clambered into the place of honour. Mr. Tinkerly's foreman was sitting behind to take care of Susan, and the foreman was unmarried, and of a greasy black-haired comeliness, and there was none happier than Susan under those wintry stars—not even the great ladies in their family diamonds.

"What are diamonds," said Susan, philosophically, with the foreman's arm sustaining her at a sharp turn in the road, "if you don't care for each other?"


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