“ Why does anyone stay in England who can make the trip to Paradise?” said the duchess, as she leaned lazily back in the corner of the boat and trailed her fingers in the waters of Como.
It was a balmy April afternoon, and she and Julie were floating through a scene enchanted, incomparable. When spring descends upon the shores of the Lago di Como, she brings with her all the graces, all the beauties, all the fine, delicate, and temperate delights of which earth and sky are capable, and she pours them forth upon a land of perfect loveliness. Around the shores of other lakes—Maggiore, Lugano, Garda—blue mountains rise, and the vineyards spread their green and dazzling terraces to the sun. Only Como can show in unmatched union a main composition, incomparably grand and harmonious, combined with every jeweled, or glowing, or exquisite detail. Nowhere do the mountains lean toward each other in such an ordered splendor as that which bends round the northern shores of Como. Nowhere do buttressed masses rise behind each other, to right and left of a blue waterway, in lines statelier or more noble than those kept by the mountains of the Lecco Lake, as they marshal themselves on either hand, along the approaches to Lombardy and Venetia; bearing aloft, as though on the purple pillars of some majestic gateway, the great curtain of dazzling cloud which, on a sunny day, hangs over the Brescian plain—a glorious drop scene, interposed between the dwellers on the Como Mountains, and those marble towns, Brescia, Verona, Padua, which thread the way to Venice.
And within this divine framework, between the glistening snows which still, in April, crown and glorify the heights, and those reflections of them which lie encalmed in the deep bosom of the lake, there’s not a foot of pasture, not a shelf of vineyard, not a slope of forest where the spring is not at work, dyeing the turf with gentians, starring it with narcissuses, or drawing across it the first golden network of the chestnut leaves; where the mere emerald of the grass is not in itself a thing to refresh the very springs of being; where the peach blossom and the wild cherry and the olive are not perpetually weaving patterns on the blue, which ravish the very heart out of your breast. And already the roses are beginning to pour over the walls; the wisteria is climbing up the cypresses; a pomp of camellias and azaleas is in all the gardens; while in the grassy bays that run up into the hills the primrose banks still keep their sweet austerity, and the triumph of spring over the just banished winter is still sharp and new.
And in the heart and sense of Julie Le Breton, as she sat beside the duchess, listening absently to the talk of the old boatman, who, with his oars resting idly in his hands, was chattering to the ladies, a renewing force akin to that of the spring was also at its healing and life-giving work. She had still the delicate, tremulous look of one recovering from a sore wrestle with physical ill; but in her aspect there were suggestions more intimate, more moving than this. Those who have lain down and risen up with pain; those who have been face to face with passion and folly and self-judgment; those who have been forced to seek with eagerness for some answer to those questions which the majority of us never ask, “Whither is my life leading me—and what is it worth to me or to any other living soul?”—these are the men and women who now and then touch or startle us with the eyes and the voice of Julie, if, at least, we have the capacity that responds. Sir Wilfrid Bury, for instance, prince of self-governed and reasonable men, was not to be touched by Julie. For him, in spite of her keen intelligence, she was the type passionné, from which he instinctively recoiled—the Duke of Crowborough the same. Such men feel toward such women as Julie Le Breton hostility or satire; for what they ask, above all, of the women of their world is a kind of simplicity, a kind of lightness which makes life easier for men.
But for natures like Evelyn Crowborough—or Meredith—or Jacob Delafield—the Julie-type has perennial attractions. For these are all children of feeling, allied in this, however different in intelligence or philosophy. They are attracted by the storm-tossed temperament in itself; by mere sensibility; by that which, in the technical language of Catholicism, suggests or possesses “the gift of tears.” At any rate, pity and love for her poor Julie—however foolish, however faulty—lay warm in Evelyn Crowborough’s breast; they had brought her to Como; they kept her now battling on the one hand with her husband’s angry letters and on the other with the melancholy of her most perplexing, most appealing friend.
I had often heard [wrote the sore-tried duke] of the ravages wrought in family life by these absurd and unreasonable female friendships, but I never thought that it would be you, Evelyn, who would bring them home to me. I won’t repeat the arguments I have used a hundred times in vain. But once again I implore and demand that you should find some kind, responsible person to look after Miss Le Breton—I don’t care what you pay—and that you yourself should come home to me and the children and the thousand and one duties you are neglecting.
As for the spring month in Scotland, which I generally enjoy so much, that has been already entirely ruined. And now the season is apparently to be ruined also. On the Shropshire property there is an important election coming on, as I am sure you know; and the Premier said to me only yesterday that he hoped you were already up and doing. The Grand Duke of C—— will be in London within the next fortnight. I particularly want to show him some civility. But what can I do without you—and how on earth am I to explain your absence?
Once more, Evelyn, I beg and I demand that you should come home.
To which the duchess had rushed off a reply without a post’s delay.
Oh, Freddie, you are such a wooden-headed darling! As if I hadn’t explained till I’m black in the face. I’m glad, anyway, you didn’t say command; that would really have made difficulties.
As for the election, I’m sure if I was at home I should think it very good fun. Out here I am extremely doubtful whether we ought to do such things as you and Lord M—— suggest. A duke shouldn’t interfere in elections. Anyway, I’m sure it’s good for my character to consider it a little—though I quite admit you may lose the election.
The Grand Duke is a horrid wretch, and if he wasn’t a grand duke you’d be the first to cut him. I had to spend a whole dinner-time last year in teaching him his proper place. It was very humiliating, and not at all amusing. You can have a men’s dinner for him. That’s all he’s fit for.
And as for the babies, Mrs. Robson sends me a telegram every morning. I can’t make out that they have had a finger-ache since I went away, and I am sure mothers are entirely superfluous. All the same, I think about them a great deal, especially at night. Last night I tried to think about their education—if only I wasn’t such a sleepy creature! But, at any rate, I never in my life tried to think about it at home. So that’s so much to the good.
Indeed, I’ll come back to you soon, you poor, forsaken, old thing! But Julie has no one in the world, and I feel like a Newfoundland dog who has pulled someone out of the water. The water was deep; and the life’s only just coming back; and the dog’s not much good. But he sits there, for company, till the doctor comes, and that’s just what I’m doing.
I know you don’t approve of the notions I have in my head now. But that’s because you don’t understand. Why don’t you come out and join us? Then you’d like Julie as much as I do; everything would be quite simple; and I shouldn’t be in the least jealous.
Dr. Meredith is coming here, probably tonight, and Jacob should arrive tomorrow on his way to Venice, where poor Chudleigh and his boy are.
The breva, or fair-weather wind, from the north was blowing freshly yet softly down the lake. The afternoon sun was burning on Bellaggio, on the long terrace of the Melzi villa, on the white mist of fruit blossom that lay lightly on the green slopes above San Giovanni.
Suddenly the duchess and the boatman left the common topics of every day by which the duchess was trying to improve her Italian—such as the proposed enlargement of the Bellevue Hotel, the new villas that were springing up, the gardens of the Villa Carlotta, and so forth. Evelyn had carelessly asked the old man whether he had been in any of the fighting of ’59, and in an instant, under her eyes, he became another being. Out rolled a torrent of speech; the oars lay idly on the water; and through the man’s gnarled and wrinkled face there blazed a high and illumining passion. Novara and its beaten king, in ’49; the ten years of waiting, when a whole people bode its time, in a gay, grim silence; the grudging victory of Magenta; the fivefold struggle that wrenched the hills of San Martino from the Austrians; the humiliations and the rage of Villafranca—of all these had this wasted graybeard made a part. And he talked of them with the Latin eloquence and facility, as no veteran of the north could have talked; he was in a moment the equal of these great affairs in which he had mingled; so that one felt in him the son of a race which had been rolled and polished—a pebble, as it were, from rocks which had made the primeval framework of the world—in the main course and stream of history.
Then from the campaign of ’59 he fell back on the Five Days of Milan in ’48—the immortal days, when a populace drove out an army, and what began almost in jest ended in a delirium, a stupefaction of victory. His language was hot, broken, confused, like the street fighting it chronicled. Afterward—a further sharpening and blanching of the old face—and he had carried them deep into the black years of Italy’s patience and Austria’s revenge. Throwing out a thin arm, he pointed toward town after town on the lake shores, now in the brilliance of sunset, now in the shadow of the northern slope—Gravedona, Varenna, Argegno—towns which had each of them given their sons to the Austrian bullet and the Austrian lash for the ransom of Italy.
He ran through the sacred names—Stazzonelli, Riccini, Crescieri, Ronchetti, Ceresa, Previtali—young men, almost all of them, shot for the possession of a gun or a knife, for helping their comrades in the Austrian army to desert, for “insulting conduct” toward an Austrian soldier or officer.
Of one of these executions, which he had himself witnessed at Varese—the shooting of a young fellow of six-and-twenty, his own friend and kinsman—he gave an account which blanched the duchess’s cheeks and brought the big tears into her eyes. Then, when he saw the effect he had produced, the old man trembled.
“Ah, eccellenza,” he cried, “but it had to be! The Italians had to show they knew how to die; then God let them live. Ecco, eccellenza!”
And he drew from his breast pocket, with shaking hands, an old envelope tied round with string. When he had untied it, a piece of paper emerged, brown with age and worn with much reading. It was a rudely printed broadsheet containing an account of the last words and sufferings of the martyrs of Mantua—those conspirators of 1852—from whose graves and dungeons sprang, tenfold renewed, the regenerating and liberating forces which, but a few years later, drove out the Austrian with the Bourbon, together.
“See here, eccellenza,” he said, as he tenderly spread out its tattered folds and gave it into the duchess’s hand. “Have the goodness to look where is that black mark. There you will find the last words of Don Enrico Tazzoli, the half-brother of my father. He was a priest, eccellenza. Ah, it was not then as it is now! The priests were then for Italy. They hanged three of them at Mantua alone. As for Don Enrico, first they stripped him of his priesthood, and then they hanged him. And those were his last words, and the last words of Scarsellini also, who suffered with him. Veda eccellenza! As for me, I know them from a boy.”
And while the duchess read, the old man repeated tags and fragments under his breath, as he once more resumed the oars and drove the boat gently toward Menaggio.
The multitude of victims has not robbed us of courage in the past, nor will it so rob us in the future—till victory dawns. The cause of the people is like the cause of religion—it triumphs only through its martyrs…You—who survive—will conquer, and in your victory we, the dead, shall live…
Take no thought for us; the blood of the forerunners is like the seed which the wise husbandman scatters on the fertile ground…Teach our young men how to adore and how to suffer for a great idea. Work incessantly at that; so shall our country come to birth; and grieve not for us!…Yes, Italy shall be one! To that all things point. WORK! There is no obstacle that cannot be overcome, no opposition that cannot be destroyed. The HOW and the WHEN only remain to be solved. You, more fortunate than we, will find the clue to the riddle, when all things are accomplished, and the times are ripe…Hope!—my parents, and my brothers—hope always!—waste no time in weeping
The duchess read aloud the Italian, and Julie stooped over her shoulder to follow the words.
“Marvelous!” said Julie, in a low voice, as she sank back into her place. “A youth of twenty-seven, with the rope round his neck, and he comforts himself with ‘Italy.’ What’s ‘Italy’ to him, or he to ‘Italy’?” Not even an immediate paradise. “Is there anybody capable of it now?”
Her face and attitude had lost their languor. As the duchess returned his treasure to the old man she looked at Julie with joy. Not since her illness had there been any such sign of warmth and energy.
And, indeed, as they floated on, past the glow of Bellaggio, toward the broad gold and azure of the farther lake, the world-defying passion that breathed from these words of dead and murdered Italians played as a bracing and renewing power on Julie’s still feeble being. It was akin to the high snows on those far Alps that closed in the lake—to the pure wind that blew from them—to the “gleam, the shadow, and the peace supreme,” amid which their little boat pressed on toward the shore.
“What matter,” cried the intelligence, but as though through sobs—“what matter the individual struggle and misery? These can be lived down. The heart can be silenced—nerves steadied—strength restored. Will and idea remain—the eternal spectacle of the world, and the eternal thirst of man to see, to know, to feel, to realize himself, if not in one passion, then in another. If not in love, then in patriotism—art—thought.”
The duchess and Julie landed presently beneath the villa of which they were the passing tenants. The duchess mounted the double staircase where the banksia already hung in a golden curtain over the marble balustrade. Her face was thoughtful. She had to write her daily letter to the absent and reproachful duke.
Julie parted from her with a caress, and paused awhile to watch the small figure till it mounted out of sight. Her friend had become very dear to her. A new humility, a new gratitude filled her heart. Evelyn should not sacrifice herself much longer. When she had insisted on carrying her patient abroad, Julie had neither mind nor will wherewith to resist. But now—the duke should soon come to his own again.
She herself turned inland for that short walk by which each day she tested her returning strength. She climbed the winding road to Criante, the lovely village above Cadenabbia; then, turning to the left, she mounted a path that led to the woods which overhang the famous gardens of the Villa Carlotta.
Such a path! To the left hand, and, as it seemed, steeply beneath her feet, all earth and heaven—the wide lake, the purple mountains, the glories of a flaming sky. On the calm spaces of water lay a shimmer of crimson and gold, repeating the noble splendor of the clouds; the midgelike boats crept from shore to shore; and, midway between Bellaggio and Cadenabbia, the steamboat, a white speck, drew a silver furrow. To her right a green hillside—each blade of grass, each flower, each tuft of heath, enskied, transfigured, by the broad light that poured across it from the hidden west. And on the very hilltop a few scattered olives, peaches, and wild cherries scrawled upon the blue, their bare, leaning stems, their pearly whites, their golden pinks and feathery grays all in a glory of sunset that made of them things enchanted, aerial, fantastical, like a dance of Botticelli angels on the height.
And presently a sheltered bank in a green hollow, where Julie sat down to rest. But nature, in this tranquil spot, had still new pageants, new sorceries wherewith to play upon the nerves of wonder. Across the hollow a great crag clothed in still leafless chestnut trees reared itself against the lake. The innumerable lines of stem and branch, warm brown or steely gray, were drawn sharp on silver air, while at the very summit of the rock one superb tree with branching limbs, touched with intense black, sprang high above the rest, the proud plume or ensign of the wood. Through the trunks the blaze of distant snow and the purples of craggy mountains; in front the glistening spray of peach or cherry blossom, breaking the still wintry beauty of that majestic grove. And in all the air, dropping from the heaven, spread on the hills, or shimmering on the lake, a diffusion of purest rose and deepest blue, lake and cloud and mountain each melting into the other, as though heaven and earth conspired merely to give value and relief to the year’s new birth, to this near sparkle of young leaf and blossom which shone like points of fire on the deep breast of the distance.
On the green ledge which ran round the hollow were children tugging at a goat. Opposite was a contadino’s house of gray stone. A waterwheel turned beside it, and a stream, brought down from the hills, ran chattering past, a white and dancing thread of water. Everything was very still and soft. The children and the river made their voices heard; and there were nightingales singing in the woods below. Otherwise all was quiet. With a tranquil and stealthy joy the spring was taking possession. Nay—the Angelus! It swung over the lake and rolled from village to village…
The tears were in Julie’s eyes. Such beauty as this was apt now to crush and break her. All her being was still sore, and this appeal of nature was sometimes more than she could bear.
Only a few short weeks since Warkworth had gone out of her life—since Delafield at a stroke had saved her from ruin—since Lord Lackington had passed away.
One letter had reached her from Warkworth, a wild and incoherent letter, written at night in a little room of a squalid hotel near the Gare de Sceaux. Her telegram had reached him, and for him, as for her, all was over.
But the letter was by no means a mere cry of baffled passion. There was in it a new note of moral anguish, as fresh and startling in her ear, coming from him, as the cry of passion itself. In the language of religion, it was the utterance of a man “convicted of sin.”
How long is it since that man gave me your telegram? I was pacing up and down the departure platform, working myself into an agony of nervousness and anxiety as the time went by, wondering what on earth had happened to you, when the chef de gare came up: “Monsieur attend une dépêche?” There were some stupid formalities—at last I got it. It seemed to me I had already guessed what it contained.
So it was Delafield who met you—Delafield who turned you back?
I saw him outside the hotel yesterday, and we exchanged a few words. I have always disliked his long, pale face and his high and mighty ways—at any rate, toward plain fellows, who don’t belong to the classes, like me. Yesterday I was more than usually anxious to get rid of him.
So he guessed?
It can’t have been chance. In some way he guessed. And you have been torn from me. My God! If I could only reach him—if I could fling his contempt in his face! And yet—
I have been walking up and down this room all night. The longing for you has been the sharpest suffering I suppose that I have ever known. For I am not one of the many people who enjoy pain. I have kept as free of it as I could. This time it caught and gripped me. Yet that isn’t all. There has been something else.
What strange, patched creatures we are! Do you know, Julie, that by the time the dawn came I was on my knees—thanking God that we were parted—that you were on your way home—safe—out of my reach? Was I mad, or what? I can’t explain it. I only know that one moment I hated Delafield as a mortal enemy—whether he was conscious of what he had done or no—and the next I found myself blessing him!
I understand now what people mean when they talk of conversion. It seems to me that in the hours I have just passed through things have come to light in me that I myself never suspected. I came of an Evangelical stock—I was brought up in a religious household. I suppose that one can’t, after all, get away from the blood and the life that one inherits. My poor, old father—I was a bad son, and I know I hastened his death—was a sort of Puritan saint, with very stern ideas. I seem to have been talking with him this night, and shrinking under his condemnation. I could see his old face, as he put before me the thoughts I had dared to entertain, the risks I had been ready to take toward the woman I loved—the woman to whom I owed a deep debt of eternal gratitude.
Julie, it is strange how this appointment affects me. Last night I saw several people at the Embassy—good fellows—who seemed anxious to do all they could for me. Such men never took so much notice of me before. It is plain to me that this task will make or mar me. I may fail. I may die. But if I succeed England will owe me something, and these men at the top of the tree—Good God! how can I go on writing this to you? It’s because I came back to the hotel and tossed about half the night brooding over the difference between what these men—these honorable, distinguished fellows—were prepared to think of me, and the blackguard I knew myself to be. What, take everything from a woman’s hand, and then turn and try and drag her in the mire—propose to her what one would shoot a man for proposing to one’s sister! Thief and cur.
Julie—kind, beloved Julie—forget it all! For God’s sake, let’s cast it all behind us! As long as I live, your name, your memory will live in my heart. We shall not meet, probably, for many years. You’ll marry and be happy yet. Just now I know you’re suffering. I seem to see you in the train—on the steamer—your pale face that has lighted up life for me—your dear, slender hands that folded so easily into one of mine. You are in pain, my darling. Your nature is wrenched from its natural supports. And you gave me all your fine, clear mind, and all your heart. I ought to be damned to the deepest hell!
Then, again, I say to myself, if only she were here! If only I had her here, with her arms round my neck, surely I might have found the courage and the mere manliness to extricate both herself and me from these entanglements. Aileen might have released and forgiven one.
No, no! It’s all over! I’ll go and do my task. You set it me. You shan’t be ashamed of me there.
Goodbye, Julie, my love—goodbye—forever!
These were portions of that strange document composed through the intervals of a long night, which showed in Warkworth’s mind the survival of a moral code, inherited from generations of scrupulous and God-fearing ancestors, overlaid by selfish living, and now revived under the stress, the purification partly of deepening passion, partly of a high responsibility. The letter was incoherent, illogical; it showed now the meaner, now the nobler elements of character; but it was human; it came from the warm depths of life, and it had exerted in the end a composing and appeasing force upon the woman to whom it was addressed. He had loved her—if only at the moment of parting—he had loved her! At the last there had been feeling, sincerity, anguish, and to these all things may be forgiven.
And, indeed, what in her eyes there was to forgive, Julie had long forgiven. Was it his fault if, when they met first, he was already pledged—for social and practical reasons which her mind perfectly recognized and understood—to Aileen Moffatt? Was it his fault if the relations between herself and him had ripened into a friendship which in its turn could only maintain itself by passing into love? No! It was she, whose hidden, insistent passion—nourished, indeed, upon a tragic ignorance—had transformed what originally he had a perfect right to offer and to feel.
So she defended him; for in so doing she justified herself. And as to the Paris proposal, he had a right to treat her as a woman capable of deciding for herself how far love should carry her; he had a right to assume that her antecedents, her training, and her circumstances were not those of the ordinary sheltered girl, and that for her love might naturally wear a bolder and wilder aspect than for others. He blamed himself too severely, too passionately; but for this very blame her heart remembered him the more tenderly. For it meant that his mind was torn and in travail for her, that his thoughts clung to her in a passionate remorse; and again she felt herself loved, and forgave with all her heart.
All the same, he was gone out of her life, and through the strain and the unconscious progress to other planes and phases of being, wrought by sickness and convalescence, her own passion for him even was now a changed and blunted thing.
Was she ashamed of the wild impulse which had carried her to Paris? It is difficult to say. She was often seized with the shuddering consciousness of an abyss escaped, with wonder that she was still in the normal, accepted world, that Evelyn might still be her companion, that Thérèse still adored her more fervently than any saint in the calendar. Perhaps, if the truth were known, she was more abased in her own eyes by the self-abandonment which had preceded the assignation with Warkworth. She had much intellectual arrogance, and before her acquaintance with Warkworth she had been accustomed to say and to feel that love was but one passion among many, and to despise those who gave it too great a place. And here she had flung herself into it, like any dull or foolish girl for whom a love affair represents the only stirring in the pool of life that she is ever likely to know.
Well, she must recapture herself and remake her life. As she sat there in the still Italian evening she thought of the old boatman, and those social and intellectual passions to which his burst of patriotism had recalled her thoughts. Society, literature, friends, and the ambitions to which these lead—let her go back to them and build her days afresh. Dr. Meredith was coming. In his talk and companionship she would once more dip and temper the tools of mind and taste. No more vain self-arraignment, no more useless regrets. She looked back with bitterness upon a moment of weakness when, in the first stage of convalescence, in mortal weariness and loneliness, she had slipped one evening into the Farm Street church and unburdened her heart in confession. As she had told the duchess, the Catholicism instilled into her youth by the Bruges nuns still laid upon her at times its ghostly and compelling hand. Now in her renewed strength she was inclined to look upon it as an element of weakness and disintegration in her nature. She resolved, in future, to free herself more entirely from a useless Aberglaube.
But Meredith was not the only visitor expected at the villa in the next few days. She was already schooling herself to face the arrival of Jacob Delafield.
It was curious how the mere thought of Delafield produced an agitation, a shock of feeling, which seemed to spread through all the activities of being. The faint, renascent glamour which had begun to attach to literature and social life disappeared. She fell into a kind of brooding, the somber restlessness of one who feels in the dark the recurrent presence of an attacking and pursuing power, and is in a tremulous uncertainty where or how to meet it.
The obscure tumult within her represented, in fact, a collision between the pagan and Christian conceptions of life. In self-dependence, in personal pride, in her desire to refer all things to the arbitrament of reason, Julie, whatever her practice, was theoretically a stoic and a pagan. But Delafield’s personality embodied another “must,” another “ought,” of a totally different kind. And it was a “must” which, in a great crisis of her life, she also had been forced to obey. There was the thought which stung and humiliated. And the fact was irreparable; nor did she see how she was ever to escape from the strange, silent, penetrating relation it had established between her and the man who loved her and had saved her, against her will.
During her convalescence at Crowborough House, Delafield had been often admitted. It would have been impossible to exclude him, unless she had confided the whole story of the Paris journey to the duchess. And whatever Evelyn might tremblingly guess, from Julie’s own mouth she knew nothing. So Delafield had come and gone, bringing Lord Lackington’s last words, and the account of his funeral, or acting as intermediary in business matters between Julie and the Chantrey brothers. Julie could not remember that she had ever asked him for these services. They fell to him, as it were, by common consent, and she had been too weak to resist.
At first, whenever he entered the room, whenever he approached her, her sense of anger and resentment had been almost unbearable. But little by little his courtesy, tact, and coolness had restored a relation between them which, if not the old one, had still many of the outward characters of intimacy. Not a word, not the remotest allusion reminded her of what had happened. The man who had stood before her transfigured on the deck of the steamer, stammering out, “I thank God I had the courage to do it!”—it was often hard for her to believe, as she stole a look at Delafield, chatting or writing in the duchess’s drawing room, that such a scene had ever taken place.
The evening stole on. How was it that whenever she allowed the thought of Delafield to obtain a real lodgment in the mind, even the memory of Warkworth was for the time effaced? Silently, irresistibly, a wild heat of opposition would develop within her. These men round whom, as it were, there breathes an air of the heights; in whom one feels the secret guard that religion keeps over thoughts and words and acts—her passionate yet critical nature flung out against them. How are they better than others, after all? What right have they over the wills of others?
Nevertheless, as the rose of evening burned on the craggy mountain face beyond Bellaggio, retreating upward, step by step, till the last glorious summit had died into the cool and already starlit blues of night, Julie, held, as it were, by a reluctant and half-jealous fascination, sat dreaming on the hillside, not now of Warkworth, not of the ambitions of the mind, or society, but simply of the goings and comings, the aspects and sayings of a man in whose eyes she had once read the deepest and sternest things of the soul—a condemnation and an anguish above and beyond himself.
Dr. Meredith arrived in due time, a jaded Londoner athirst for idleness and fresh air. The duchess and Julie carried him hither and thither about the lake in the four-oar boat which had been hired for the duchess’s pleasure. Here, enthroned between the two ladies, he passed luxurious hours, and his talk of politics, persons, and books brought just that stimulus to Julie’s intelligence and spirits for which the duchess had been secretly longing.
A first faint color returned to Julie’s cheeks. She began to talk again; to resume certain correspondences; to show herself once more—at any rate intermittently—the affectionate, sympathetic, and beguiling friend.
As for Meredith, he knew little, but he suspected a good deal. There were certain features in her illness and convalescence which suggested to him a mental cause; and if there were such a cause, it must, of course, spring from her relations to Warkworth.
The name of that young officer was never mentioned. Once or twice Meredith was tempted to introduce it. It rankled in his mind that Julie had never been frank with him, freely as he had poured his affection at her feet. But a moment of languor or of pallor disarmed him.
“She is better,” he said to the duchess one day, abruptly. “Her mind is full of activity. But why, at times, does she still look so miserable—like a person without hope or future?”
The duchess looked pensive. They were sitting in the corner of one of the villa’s terraced walks, amid a scented wilderness of flowers. Above them was a canopy of purple and yellow—rose and wisteria; while through the arches of the pergola which ran along the walk gleamed all those various blues which make the spell of Como—the blue and white of the clouds, the purple of the mountains, the azure of the lake.
“Well, she was in love with him. I suppose it takes a little time,” said the duchess, sighing.
“Why was she in love with him?” said Meredith, impatiently. “As to the Moffatt engagement, naturally, she was kept in the dark?”
“At first,” said the duchess, hesitating. “And when she knew, poor dear, it was too late!”
“Too late for what?”
“Well, when one falls in love one doesn’t all at once shake it off because the man deceives you.”
“One should,” said Meredith, with energy. “Men are not worth all that women spend upon them.”
“Oh, that’s true!” cried the duchess—“so dreadfully true! But what’s the good of preaching? We shall go on spending it to the end of time.”
“Well, at any rate, don’t choose the dummies and the frauds.”
“Ah, there you talk sense,” said the duchess. “And if only we had the French system in England! If only one could say to Julie: ‘Now look here, there’s your husband! It’s all settled—down to plate and linen—and you’ve got to marry him!’ how happy we should all be.”
Dr. Meredith stared.
“You have the man in your eye,” he said.
The duchess hesitated.
“Suppose you come a little walk with me in the wood,” she said, at last, gathering up her white skirts.
Meredith obeyed her. They were away for half an hour, and when they returned the journalist’s face, flushed and furrowed with thought, was not very easy to read.
Nor was his temper in good condition. It required a climb to the very top of Monte Crocione to send him back, more or less appeased, a consenting player in the duchess’s game. For if there are men who are flirts and egotists—who ought to be, yet never are, divined by the sensible woman at a glance—so also there are men too well equipped for this wicked world, too good, too well born, too desirable.
It was in this somewhat flinty and carping mood that Meredith prepared himself for the advent of Jacob Delafield.
But when Delafield appeared, Meredith’s secret antagonisms were soon dissipated. There was certainly no challenging air of prosperity about the young man.
At first sight, indeed, he was his old cheerful self, always ready for a walk or a row, on easy terms at once with the Italian servants or boatmen. But soon other facts emerged—stealthily, as it were, from the concealment in which a strong man was trying to keep them.
“That young man’s youth is over,” said Meredith, abruptly, to the duchess one evening. He pointed to the figure of Delafield, who was pacing, alone with his pipe, up and down one of the lower terraces of the garden.
The duchess showed a teased expression.
“It’s like something wearing through,” she said, slowly. “I suppose it was always there, but it didn’t show.”
“Name your ‘it.’”
“I can’t.” But she gave a little shudder, which made Meredith look at her with curiosity.
“You feel something ghostly—unearthly?”
She nodded assent; crying out, however, immediately afterward, as though in compunction, that he was one of the dearest and best of fellows.
“Of course he is,” said Meredith. “It is only the mystic in him coming out. He is one of the men who have the sixth sense.”
“Well, all I know is, he has the oddest power over people,” said Evelyn, with another shiver. “If Freddie had it, my life wouldn’t be worth living. Thank goodness, he hasn’t a vestige!”
“At bottom it’s the power of the priest,” said Meredith. “And you women are far too susceptible toward it. Nine times out of ten it plays the mischief.”
The duchess was silent a moment. Then she bent toward her companion, finger on lip, her charming eyes glancing significantly toward the lower terrace. The figures on it were now two. Julie and Delafield paced together.
“But this is the tenth!” she said, in an eager whisper.
Meredith smiled at her, then flung her a dubious “Chi sa?” and changed the subject.
Delafield, who was a fine oar, had soon taken command of the lake expeditions; and by the help of two stalwart youths from Tremezzo, the four-oar was in use from morning till night. Through the broad lake which lies between Menaggio and Varenna it sped northward to Gravedona; or beneath the shadowy cliffs of the Villa Serbelloni it slipped over deep waters, haunted and dark, into the sunny spaces of Lecco; or it coasted along the steep sides of Monte Primo, so that the travelers in it might catch the blue stain of the gentians on the turf, where it sloped into the lucent wave below, or watch the fishermen on the rocks, spearing their prey in the green or golden shallows.
The weather was glorious—a summer before its time. The wild cherries shook down their snow upon the grass; but the pears were now in bridal white, and a warmer glory of apple blossom was just beginning to break upon the blue. The nights were calm and moonlit; the dawns were visions of mysterious and incredible beauty, wherein mountain and forest and lake were but the garments, diaphanous, impalpable, of some delicate, indwelling light and fire spirit, which breathed and pulsed through the solidity of rock, no less visibly than through the crystal leagues of air or the sunlit spaces of water.
Yet presently, as it were, a hush of waiting, of tension, fell upon their little party. Nature offered her best; but there was only an apparent acceptance of her bounties. Through the outward flow of talk and amusement, of wanderings on lake or hill, ugly hidden forces of pain and strife, regret, misery, resistance, made themselves rarely yet piercingly felt.
Julie drooped again. Her cheeks were paler even than when Meredith arrived. Delafield, too, began to be more silent, more absent. He was helpful and courteous as ever, but it began to be seen that his gaiety was an effort, and now and then there were sharp or bitter notes in voice or manner, which jarred, and were not soon forgotten.
Presently, Meredith and the duchess found themselves looking on, breathless and astonished, at the struggle of two personalities, the wrestle between two wills. They little knew that it was a renewed struggle—second wrestle. But silently, by a kind of tacit agreement, they drew away from Delafield and Julie. They dimly understood that he pursued and she resisted; and that for him life was becoming gradually absorbed into the two facts of her presence and her resistance.
“On ne s’appuie que sur ce qui résiste.” For both of them these words were true. Fundamentally, and beyond all passing causes of grief and anger, each was fascinated by the full strength of nature in the other. Neither could ever forget the other. The hours grew electric, and every tiny incident became charged with spiritual meaning.
Often for hours together Julie would try to absorb herself in talk with Meredith. But the poor fellow got little joy from it. Presently, at a word or look of Delafield’s she would let herself be recaptured, as though with a proud reluctance; they wandered away together; and once more Meredith and the duchess became the merest bystanders.
The duchess shrugged her shoulders over it, and, though she laughed, sometimes the tears were in her eyes. She felt the hovering of passion, but it was no passion known to her own blithe nature.
And if only this strange state of things might end, one way or other, and set her free to throw her arms round her duke’s neck, and beg his pardon for all these weeks of desertion! She said to herself, ruefully, that her babies would indeed have forgotten her.
Yet she stood stoutly to her post, and the weeks passed quickly by. It was the dramatic energy of the situation—so much more dramatic in truth than either she or Meredith suspected—that made it such a strain upon the onlookers.
One evening they had left the boat at Tremezzo, that they might walk back along that most winning of paths that skirts the lake between the last houses of Tremezzo and the inn at Cadenabbia. The sunset was nearly over, but the air was still suffused with its rose and pearl, and fragrant with the scent of flowering laurels. Each mountain face, each white village, either couched on the water’s edge or grouped about its slender campanile on some shoulder of the hills, each house and tree and figure seemed still penetrated with light, the glorified creatures of some just revealed and already fading world. The echoes of the evening bell were floating on the lake, and from a boat in front, full of peasant folk, there rose a sound of singing, some litany of saint or virgin, which stole in harmonies, rudely true, across the water.
“They have been to the pilgrimage church above Lenno,” said Julie, pointing to the boat, and in order to listen to the singing, she found a seat on a low wall above the lake.
There was no reply, and, looking round her, she saw with a start that only Delafield was beside her, that the duchess and Meredith had already rounded the corner of the Villa Carlotta and were out of sight.
Delafield’s gaze was fixed upon her. He was very pale, and suddenly Julie’s breath seemed to fail her.
“I don’t think I can bear it any longer,” he said, as he came close to her.
“That you should look as you do now.”
Julie made no reply. Her eyes, very sad and bitter, searched the blue dimness of the lake in silence.
Delafield sat down on the wall beside her. Not a soul was in sight. At the Cadenabbia Hotel, the table d’hôte had gathered in the visitors; a few boats passed and repassed in the distance, but on land all was still.
Suddenly he took her hand with a firm grasp.
“Are you never going to forgive me?” he said, in a low voice.
“I suppose I ought to bless you.”
Her face seemed to him to express the tremulous misery of a heart deeply, perhaps irrevocably, wounded. Emotion rose in a tide, but he crushed it down.
He bent over her, speaking with deliberate tenderness.
“Julie, do you remember what you promised Lord Lackington when he was dying?”
“Oh!” cried Julie.
She sprang to her feet, speechless and suffocated. Her eyes expressed a mingled pride and terror.
He paused, confronting her with a pale resolution.
“You didn’t know that I had seen him?”
She turned away fiercely, choking with sobs she could hardly control, as the memory of that bygone moment returned upon her.
“I thought as much,” said Delafield, in a low voice. “You hoped never to hear of your promise again.”
She made no answer; but she sank again upon the seat beside the lake, and supporting herself on one delicate hand, which clung to the coping of the wall, she turned her pale and tear-stained face to the lake and the evening sky. There was in her gesture an unconscious yearning, a mute and anguished appeal, as though from the oppressions of human character to the broad strength of nature, that was not lost on Delafield. His mind became the center of a swift and fierce debate. One voice said: “Why are you persecuting her? Respect her weakness and her grief.” And another replied: “It is because she is weak that she must yield—must allow herself to be guided and adored.”
He came close to her again. Any passerby might have supposed that they were both looking at the distant boat and listening to the pilgrimage chant.
“Do you think I don’t understand why you made that promise?” he said, very gently, and the mere self-control of his voice and manner carried a spell with it for the woman beside him. “It was wrung out of you by kindness for a dying man. You thought I should never know, or I should never claim it. Well, I am selfish. I take advantage. I do claim it. I saw Lord Lackington only a few hours before his death. ‘She mustn’t be alone,’ he said to me, several times. And then, almost at the last, ‘Ask her again. She’ll consider it—she promised.’”
Julie turned impetuously.
“Neither of us is bound by that—neither of us.”
“Does that mean that I am asking you now because he bade me?”
A pause. Julie must needs raise her eyes to his. She flushed red and withdrew them.
“No,” he said, with a long breath, “you don’t mean that, and you don’t think it. As for you—yes, you are bound! Julie, once more I bring you my plea, and you must consider it.”
“How can I be your wife?” she said, her breast heaving. “You know all that has happened. It would be monstrous.”
“Not at all,” was his quiet reply. “It would be natural and right. Julie, it is strange that I should be talking to you like this. You’re so much cleverer than I—in some ways, so much stronger. And yet, in others—you’ll let me say it, won’t you?—I could help you. I could protect you. It’s all I care for in the world.”
“How can I be your wife?” she repeated, passionately, wringing her hands.
“Be what you will—at home. My friend, comrade, housemate. I ask nothing more—nothing.” His voice dropped, and there was a pause. Then he resumed. “But, in the eyes of the world, make me your servant and your husband!”
“I can’t condemn you to such a fate,” she cried. “You know where my heart is.”
Delafield did not waver.
“I know where your heart was,” he said, with firmness. “You will banish that man from your thoughts in time. He has no right to be there. I take all the risks—all.”
“Well, at least for you, I am no hypocrite,” she said, with a quivering lip. “You know what I am.”
“Yes, I know, and I am at your feet.”
The tears dropped from Julie’s eyes. She turned away and hid her face against one of the piers of the wall.
Delafield attempted no caress. He quietly set himself to draw the life that he had to offer her, the comradeship that he proposed to her. Not a word of what the world called his “prospects” entered in. She knew very well that he could not bring himself to speak of them. Rather, a sort of ascetic and mystical note made itself heard in all he said of the future, a note that before now had fascinated and controlled a woman whose ambition was always strangely tempered with high, poetical imagination.
Yet, ambitious she was, and her mind inevitably supplied what his voice left unsaid.
“He will have to fill his place whether he wishes it or not,” she said to herself. “And if, in truth, he desires my help—”
Then she shrank from her own wavering. Look where she would into her life, it seemed to her that all was monstrous and out of joint.
“You don’t realize what you ask,” she said, at last, in despair. “I am not what you call a good woman—you know it too well. I don’t measure things by your standards. I am capable of such a journey as you found me on. I can’t find in my own mind that I repent it at all. I can tell a lie—you can’t. I can have the meanest and most sordid thoughts—you can’t. Lady Henry thought me an intriguer—I am one. It is in my blood. And I don’t know whether, in the end, I could understand your language and your life. And if I don’t, I shall make you miserable.”
She looked up, her slender frame straightening under what was, in truth, a noble defiance.
Delafield bent over her and took both her hands forcibly in his own.
“If all that were true, I would rather risk it a thousand times over than go out of your life again—a stranger. Julie, you have done mad things for love—you should know what love is. Look in my face—there—your eyes in mine! Give way! The dead ask it of you—and it is God’s will.”
And as, drawn by the last, low-spoken words, Julie looked up into his face, she felt herself enveloped by a mystical and passionate tenderness that paralyzed her resistance. A force, superhuman, laid its grasp upon her will. With a burst of tears, half in despair, half in revolt, she submitted.