"I," she said, very slowly, "I was married the same night as you."
He looked at her.
"Not legally, of course," she replied. "But - actually."
"To the keeper?" he said, not knowing what else to say.
She turned to him.
"You thought I could not?" she said. But the flush was deep in her cheek and throat, for all her assurance.
Still he would not say anything.
"You see" - she was making an effort to explain - "I had to understand also."
"And what does it amount to, this UNDERSTANDING?" he asked.
"A very great deal - does it not to you?" she replied. "One is free."
"And you are not disappointed?"
"Far from it!" Her tone was deep and sincere.
"You love him?"
"Yes, I love him."
"Good!" he said.
This silenced her for a while.
"Here, among his things, I love him," she said.
His conceit would not let him be silent.
"It needs this setting?" he asked.
"It does," she cried. "You were always making me to be not myself."
He laughed shortly.
"But is it a matter of surroundings?" he said. He had considered her all spirit.
"I am like a plant," she replied. "I can only grow in my own soil."
They came to a place where the undergrowth shrank away, leaving a bare, brown space, pillared with the brick-red and purplish trunks of pine trees. On the fringe, hung the sombre green of elder trees, with flat flowers in bud, and below were bright, unfurling pennons of fern. In the midst of the bare space stood a keeper's log hut. Pheasant-coops were lying about, some occupied by a clucking hen, some empty.
Hilda walked over the brown pine-needles to the hut, took a key from among the eaves, and opened the door. It was a bare wooden place with a carpenter's bench and form, carpenter's tools, an axe, snares, straps, some skins pegged down, everything in order. Hilda closed the door. Syson examined the weird flat coats of wild animals, that were pegged down to be cured. She turned some knotch in the side wall, and disclosed a second, small apartment.
"How romantic!" said Syson.
"Yes. He is very curious - he has some of a wild animal's cunning - in a nice sense - and he is inventive, and thoughtful - but not beyond a certain point."
She pulled back a dark green curtain. The apartment was occupied almost entirely by a large couch of heather and bracken, on which was spread an ample rabbit-skin rug. On the floor were patchwork rugs of cat-skin, and a red calf-skin, while hanging from the wall were other furs. Hilda took down one, which she put on. It was a cloak of rabbit-skin and of white fur, with a hood, apparently of the skins of stoats. She laughed at Syson from out of this barbaric mantle, saying:
"What do you think of it?"
"Ah - ! I congratulate you on your man," he replied.
"And look!" she said.
In a little jar on a shelf were some sprays, frail and white, of the first honeysuckle.
"They will scent the place at night," she said.
He looked round curiously.
"Where does he come short, then?" he asked. She gazed at him for a few moments. Then, turning aside:
"The stars aren't the same with him," she said. "You could make them flash and quiver, and the forget-me-nots come up at me like phosphorescence. You could make things WONDERFUL. I have found it out - it is true. But I have them all for myself, now."
He laughed, saying:
"After all, stars and forget-me-nots are only luxuries. You ought to make poetry."
"Aye," she assented. "But I have them all now."
Again he laughed bitterly at her.
She turned swiftly. He was leaning against the small window of the tiny, obscure room, and was watching her, who stood in the doorway, still cloaked in her mantle. His cap was removed, so she saw his face and head distinctly in the dim room. His black, straight, glossy hair was brushed clean back from his brow. His black eyes were watching her, and his face, that was clear and cream, and perfectly smooth, was flickering.
"We are very different," she said bitterly.
Again he laughed.
"I see you disapprove of me," he said.
"I disapprove of what you have become," she said.
"You think we might" - he glanced at the hut - "have been like this - you and I?"
She shook her head.
"You! no; never! You plucked a thing and looked at it till you had found out all you wanted to know about it, then you threw it away," she said.
"Did I?" he asked. "And could your way never have been my way? I suppose not."
"Why should it?" she said. "I am a separate being."
"But surely two people sometimes go the same way," he said.
"You took me away from myself," she said.
He knew he had mistaken her, had taken her for something she was not. That was his fault, not hers.
"And did you always know?" he asked.
"No - you never let me know. You bullied me. I couldn't help myself. I was glad when you left me, really."
"I know you were," he said. But his face went paler, almost deathly luminous.
"Yet," he said, "it was you who sent me the way I have gone."
"I!" she exclaimed, in pride.
"You WOULD have me take the Grammar School scholarship - and you would have me foster poor little Botell's fervent attachment to me, till he couldn't live without me - and because Botell was rich and influential. You triumphed in the wine-merchant's offer to send me to Cambridge, to befriend his only child. You wanted me to rise in the world. And all the time you were sending me away from you - every new success of mine put a separation between us, and more for you than for me. You never wanted to come with me: you wanted just to send me to see what it was like. I believe you even wanted me to marry a lady. You wanted to triumph over society in me."
"And I am responsible," she said, with sarcasm.
"I distinguished myself to satisfy you," he replied.
"Ah!" she cried, "you always wanted change, change, like a child."
"Very well! And I am a success, and I know it, and I do some good work. But - I thought you were different. What right have you to a man?"
"What do you want?" she said, looking at him with wide, fearful eyes.
He looked back at her, his eyes pointed, like weapons.
"Why, nothing," he laughed shortly.
There was a rattling at the outer latch, and the keeper entered. The woman glanced round, but remained standing, fur-cloaked, in the inner doorway. Syson did not move.
The other man entered, saw, and turned away without speaking. The two also were silent.
Pilbeam attended to his skins.
"I must go," said Syson.
"Yes," she replied.
"Then I give you 'To our vast and varying fortunes.'" He lifted his hand in pledge.
"'To our vast and varying fortunes,'" she answered gravely, and speaking in cold tones.
"Arthur!" she said.
The keeper pretended not to hear. Syson, watching keenly, began to smile. The woman drew herself up.
"Arthur!" she said again, with a curious upward inflection, which warned the two men that her soul was trembling on a dangerous crisis.
The keeper slowly put down his tool and came to her.
"Yes," he said.
"I wanted to introduce you," she said, trembling.
"I've met him a'ready," said the keeper.
"Have you? It is Addy, Mr Syson, whom you know about. - This is Arthur, Mr Pilbeam," she added, turning to Syson. The latter held out his hand to the keeper, and they shook hands in silence.
"I'm glad to have met you," said Syson. "We drop our correspondence, Hilda?"
"Why need we?" she asked.
The two men stood at a loss.
"IS there no need?" said Syson.
Still she was silent.
"It is as you will," she said.
They went all three together down the gloomy path.
"'Qu'il était bleu, le ciel, et grand l'espoir,'" quoted Syson, not knowing what to say.
"What do you mean?" she said. "Besides, WE can't walk in OUR wild oats - we never sowed any."
Syson looked at her. He was startled to see his young love, his nun, his Botticelli angel, so revealed. It was he who had been the fool. He and she were more separate than any two strangers could be. She only wanted to keep up a correspondence with him - and he, of course, wanted it kept up, so that he could write to her, like Dante to some Beatrice who had never existed save in the man's own brain.
At the bottom of the path she left him. He went along with the keeper, towards the open, towards the gate that closed on the wood. The two men walked almost like friends. They did not broach the subject of their thoughts.
Instead of going straight to the high-road gate, Syson went along the wood's edge, where the brook spread out in a little bog, and under the alder trees, among the reeds, great yellow stools and bosses of marigolds shone. Threads of brown water trickled by, touched with gold from the flowers. Suddenly there was a blue flash in the air, as a kingfisher passed.
Syson was extraordinarily moved. He climbed the bank to the gorse bushes, whose sparks of blossom had not yet gathered into a flame. Lying on the dry brown turf, he discovered sprigs of tiny purple milkwort and pink spots of lousewort. What a wonderful world it was - marvellous, for ever new. He felt as if it were underground, like the fields of monotone hell, notwithstanding. Inside his breast was a pain like a wound. He remembered the poem of William Morris, where in the Chapel of Lyonesse a knight lay wounded, with the truncheon of a spear deep in his breast, lying always as dead, yet did not die, while day after day the coloured sunlight dipped from the painted window across the chancel, and passed away. He knew now it never had been true, that which was between him and her, not for a moment. The truth had stood apart all the time.
Syson turned over. The air was full of the sound of larks, as if the sunshine above were condensing and falling in a shower. Amid this bright sound, voices sounded small and distinct.
"But if he's married, an' quite willing to drop it off, what has ter against it?" said the man's voice.
"I don't want to talk about it now. I want to be alone."
Syson looked through the bushes. Hilda was standing in the wood, near the gate. The man was in the field, loitering by the hedge, and playing with the bees as they settled on the white bramble flowers.
There was silence for a while, in which Syson imagined her will among the brightness of the larks. Suddenly the keeper exclaimed "Ah!" and swore. He was gripping at the sleeve of his coat, near the shoulder. Then he pulled off his jacket, threw it on the ground, and absorbedly rolled up his shirt sleeve right to the shoulder.
"Ah!" he said vindictively, as he picked out the bee and flung it away. He twisted his fine, bright arm, peering awkwardly over his shoulder.
"What is it?" asked Hilda.
"A bee - crawled up my sleeve," he answered.
"Come here to me," she said.
The keeper went to her, like a sulky boy. She took his arm in her hands.
"Here it is - and the sting left in - poor bee!"
She picked out the sting, put her mouth to his arm, and sucked away the drop of poison. As she looked at the red mark her mouth had made, and at his arm, she said, laughing:
"That is the reddest kiss you will ever have."
When Syson next looked up, at the sound of voices, he saw in the shadow the keeper with his mouth on the throat of his beloved, whose head was thrown back, and whose hair had fallen, so that one rough rope of dark brown hair hung across his bare arm.
"No," the woman answered. "I am not upset because he's gone. You won't understand . . ."
Syson could not distinguish what the man said. Hilda replied, clear and distinct:
"You know I love you. He has gone quite out of my life - don't trouble about him . . ." He kissed her, murmuring. She laughed hollowly.
"Yes," she said, indulgent. "We will be married, we will be married. But not just yet." He spoke to her again. Syson heard nothing for a time. Then she said:
"You must go home, now, dear - you will get no sleep."
Again was heard the murmur of the keeper's voice, troubled by fear and passion.
"But why should we be married at once?" she said. "What more would you have, by being married? It is most beautiful as it is."
At last he pulled on his coat and departed. She stood at the gate, not watching him, but looking over the sunny country.
When at last she had gone, Syson also departed, going back to town.