"Well, my dear!" said Henrietta. "If I had such a worried look on my face, when I was going down to spend the weekend with the man I was engaged to - and going to be married to in a month - well! I should either try and change my face, or hide my feelings, or something."
"You shut up!" said Hester curtly. "Don't look at my face, if it doesn't please you."
"Now, my dear Hester, don't go into one of your tempers! Just look in the mirror, and you'll see what I mean."
"Who cares what you mean! You're not responsible for my face," said Hester desperately, showing no intention of looking in the mirror, or of otherwise following her sister's kind advice.
Henrietta, being the younger sister, and mercifully unengaged, hummed a tune lightly. She was only twenty-one, and had not the faintest intention of jeopardising her peace of mind by accepting any sort of fatal ring. Nevertheless, it WAS nice to see Hester "getting off", as they say; for Hester was nearly twenty-five, which is serious.
The worst of it was, lately Hester had had her famous "worried" look on her face, when it was a question of the faithful Joe: dark shadows under the eyes, drawn lines down the cheeks. And when Hester looked like that, Henrietta couldn't help feeling the most horrid jangled echo of worry and apprehension in her own heart, and she hated it. She simply couldn't stand that sudden feeling of fear.
"What I mean to say," she continued, "IS - that it's jolly unfair to Joe, if you go down looking like that. Either put a better face on it, or - " But she checked herself. She was going to say "don't go". But really, she did hope that Hester would go through with this marriage. Such a weight off her, Henrietta's, mind.
"Oh, hang!" cried Hester. "Shut up!" And her dark eyes flashed a spark of fury and misgiving at the young Henrietta.
Henrietta sat down on the bed, lifted her chin, and composed her face like a meditating angel. She really was intensely fond of Hester, and the worried look was such a terribly bad sign.
"Look here, Hester!" she said. "Shall I come down to Markbury with you? I don't mind, if you'd like me to."
"My dear girl," cried Hester in desperation, "what earthly use do you think that would be?"
"Well, I thought it might take the edge off the intimacy, if that's what worries you."
Hester re-echoed with a hollow, mocking laugh.
"Don't be such a CHILD, Henrietta, really!" she said.
And Hester set off alone, down to Wiltshire, where her Joe had just started a little farm, to get married on. After being in the artillery, he had got sick and tired of business: besides, Hester would never have gone into a little suburban villa. Every woman sees her home through a wedding ring. Hester had only taken a squint through her engagement ring, so far. But Ye Gods! not Golders Green, not even Harrow!
So Joe had built a little brown wooden bungalow - largely with his own hands: and at the back was a small stream with two willows, old ones. At the sides were brown sheds, and chicken-runs. There were pigs in a hog-proof wire fence, and two cows in a field, and a horse. Joe had thirty-odd acres, with only a youth to help him. But of course, there would be Hester.
It all looked very new and tidy. Joe was a worker. He too looked rather new and tidy, very healthy and pleased with himself. He didn't even see the "worried look". Or if he did, he only said:
"You're looking a bit fagged, Hester. Going up to the City takes it out of you, more than you know. You'll be another girl down here."
"Shan't I just!" cried Hester.
She did like it, too! - the lots of white and yellow hens, and the pigs so full of pep! And the yellow thin blades of willow leaves showering softly down at the back of her house from the leaning old trees. She liked it awfully: especially the yellow leaves on the earth.
She told Joe she thought it was all lovely, topping, fine! And he was awfully pleased. Certainly HE looked fit enough.
The mother of the helping youth gave them dinner at half-past twelve. The afternoon was all sunshine and little jobs to do, after she had dried the dishes for the mother of the youth.
"Not long now, miss, before you'll be cooking at this range: and a good little range it is."
"Not long now, no!" echoed Hester, in the hot little wooden kitchen, that was over-heated from the range.
The woman departed. After tea, the youth also departed and Joe and Hester shut up the chickens and the pigs. It was nightfall. Hester went in and made the supper, feeling somehow a bit of a fool, and Joe made a fire in the living-room, he feeling rather important and luscious.
He and Hester would be alone in the bungalow, till the youth appeared next morning. Six months ago, Hester would have enjoyed it. They were so perfectly comfortable together, he and she. They had been friends, and his family and hers had been friends for years, donkey's years. He was a perfectly decent boy, and there would never have been anything messy to fear from him. Nor from herself. Ye Gods, no!
But now, alas, since she had promised to marry him, he had made the wretched mistake of falling "in love" with her. He had never been that way before. And if she had known he would get this way now, she would have said decidedly: Let us remain friends, Joe, for this sort of thing is a come-down. Once he started cuddling and petting, she couldn't stand him. Yet she felt she ought to. She imagined she even ought to like it. Though where the OUGHT came from, she could not see.
"I'm afraid, Hester," he said sadly, "you're not in love with me as I am with you."
"Hang it all!" she cried. "If I'm not, you ought to be jolly well thankful, that's all I've got to say."
Which double-barrelled remark he heard, but did not register. He never liked looking anything in the very pin-point middle of the eye. He just left it, and left all her feelings comfortably in the dark. Comfortably for him, that is.
He was extremely competent at motor-cars and farming and all that sort of thing. And surely she, Hester, was as complicated as a motorcar! Surely she had as many subtle little valves and magnetos and accelerators and all the rest of it, to her make-up! If only he would try to handle HER as carefully as he handled his car! She needed starting, as badly as ever any automobile did. Even if a car had a self-starter, the man had to give it the right twist. Hester felt she would need a lot of cranking up, if ever she was to start off on the matrimonial road with Joe. And he, the fool, just sat in a motionless car and pretended he was making heaven knows how many miles an hour.
This evening she felt really desperate. She had been quite all right doing things with him, during the afternoon, about the place. Then she liked being with him. But now that it was evening and they were alone, the stupid little room, the cosy fire, Joe, Joe's pipe, and Joe's smug sort of hypocritical face, all was just too much for her.
"Come and sit here, dear," said Joe persuasively, patting the sofa at his side. And she, because she believed a NICE girl would have been only too delighted to go and sit "there", went and sat beside him. But she was boiling. What cheek! What cheek of him even to have a sofa! She loathed the vulgarity of sofas.
She endured his arm round her waist, and a certain pressure of his biceps which she presumed was cuddling. He had carefully knocked his pipe out. But she thought how smug and silly his face looked, all its natural frankness and straight-forwardness had gone. How ridiculous of him to stroke the back of her neck! How idiotic he was, trying to be lovey-dovey! She wondered what sort of sweet nothings Lord Byron, for example, had murmured to his various ladies. Surely not so blithering, not so incompetent! And how monstrous of him, to kiss her like that.
"I'd infinitely rather you'd play to me, Joe," she snapped.
"You don't want me to play to you to-night, do you, dear?" he said.
"Why not to-night? I'd love to hear some Tchaikowsky, something to stir me up a bit."
He rose obediently and went to the piano. He played quite well. She listened. And Tchaikowsky might have stirred her up all right. The music itself, that is. If she hadn't been so desperately aware that Joe's love-making, if you can call it such, became more absolutely impossible after the sound of the music.
"That was fine!" she said. "Now do me my favourite nocturne."
While he concentrated on the fingering, she slipped out of the house.
Oh! she gasped a sigh of relief to be in the cool October air. The darkness was dim. In the west was a half moon freshly shining, and all the air was motionless, dimness lay like a haze on the earth.
Hester shook her hair, and strode away from the bungalow, which was a perfect little drum, re-echoing to her favourite nocturne. She simply rushed to get out of ear-shot.
Ah! the lovely night! She tossed her short hair again, and felt like Mazeppa's horse, about to dash away into the infinite. Though the infinite was only a field belonging to the next farm. But Hester felt herself seething in the soft moonlight. Oh! to rush away over the edge of the beyond! if the beyond, like Joe's bread- knife, did have an edge to it. "I know I'm an idiot," she said to herself. But that didn't take away the wild surge of her limbs. Oh! If there were only some other solution, instead of Joe and his spooning. Yes, SPOONING! The word made her lose the last shred of her self-respect, but she said it aloud.
There was, however, a bunch of strange horses in this field, so she made her way cautiously back through Joe's fence. It was just like him, to have such a little place that you couldn't get away from the sound of his piano, without trespassing on somebody else's ground.
As she drew near the bungalow, however, the drumming of Joe's piano suddenly ceased. Oh, Heaven! She looked wildly round. An old willow leaned over the stream. She stretched, crouching, and with the quickness of a long cat, climbed up into the net of cool-bladed foliage.
She had scarcely shuffled and settled into a tolerable position when he came round the corner of the house and into the moonlight, looking for her. How dare he look for her! She kept as still as a bat among the leaves, watching him as he sauntered with erect, tiresomely manly figure and lifted head, staring round in the darkness. He looked for once very ineffectual, insignificant, and at a loss. Where was his supposed male magic? Why was he so slow and unequal to the situation?
There! He was calling softly and self-consciously: "Hester! Hester! Where have you put yourself?"
He was angry really. Hester kept still in her tree, trying not to fidget. She had not the faintest intention of answering him. He might as well have been on another planet. He sauntered vaguely and unhappily out of sight.
Then she had a qualm. "Really, my girl, it's a bit thick, the way you treat him! Poor old Joe!"
Immediately something began to hum inside her: "I hear those tender voices calling Poor Old Joe!"
Nevertheless, she didn't want to go indoors to spend the evening tête-à-tête - my word! - with him.
"Of course it's absurd to think I could possibly fall in love like that. I would rather fall into one of his pig-troughs. It's so frightfully common. As a matter of fact, it's just a proof that he doesn't love me."
This thought went through her like a bullet. "The very fact of his being in love with me proves that he doesn't love me. No man that loved a woman could be in love with her like that. It's so insulting to her."
She immediately began to cry, and fumbling in her sleeve for her hanky, she nearly fell out of the tree. Which brought her to her senses.
In the obscure distance she saw him returning to the house, and she felt bitter. "Why did he start all this mess? I never wanted to marry anybody, and I certainly never bargained for anybody falling in love with me. Now I'm miserable, and I feel abnormal. Because the majority of girls must like this in-love business, or men wouldn't do it. And the majority must be normal. So I'm abnormal, and I'm up a tree. I loathe myself. As for Joe, he's spoilt all there was between us, and he expects me to marry him on the strength of it. It's perfectly sickening! What a mess life is. How I loathe messes!"
She immediately shed a few more tears, in the course of which she heard the door of the bungalow shut with something of a bang. He had gone indoors, and he was going to be righteously offended. A new misgiving came over her.
The willow tree was uncomfortable. The air was cold and damp. If she caught another chill she'd probably snuffle all winter long. She saw the lamplight coming from the window of the bungalow, and she said "Damn!" which meant, in her case, that she was feeling bad.
She slid down out of the tree, and scratched her arm and probably damaged one of her nicest pair of stockings. "Oh, hang!" she said with emphasis, preparing to go into the bungalow and have it out with poor old Joe. "I will NOT call him Poor Old Joe!"
At that moment she heard a motor-car slow down in the lane, and there came a low, cautious toot from a hooter. Headlights shone at a standstill near Joe's new iron gate.
"The cheek of it! The unbearable cheek of it! There's that young Henrietta come down on me!"
She flew along Joe's cinder-drive like a Mænad.
"Hello, Hester!" came Henrietta's young voice, coolly floating from the obscurity of the car. "How's everything?"
"What cheek!" cried Hester. "What amazing cheek!" She leaned on Joe's iron gate and panted.
"How's everything?" repeated Henrietta's voice blandly.
"What do you mean by it?" demanded Hester, still panting.
"Now, my girl, don't go off at a tangent! We weren't coming in unless you came out. You needn't think we want to put our noses in your affairs. We're going down to camp on Bonamy. Isn't the weather too divine!"
Bonamy was Joe's pal, also an old artillery man, who had set up a "farm" about a mile farther along the land. Joe was by no means a Robinson Crusoe in his bungalow.
"Who are you, anyway?" demanded Hester.
"Same old birds," said Donald, from the driver's seat. Donald was Joe's brother. Henrietta was sitting in front, next to him.
"Same as ever," said Teddy, poking his head out of the car. Teddy was a second cousin.
"Well," said Hester, sort of climbing down. "I suppose you may as well come in, now you ARE here. Have you eaten?"
"Eaten, yes," said Donald. "But we aren't coming in this trip, Hester; don't you fret."
"Why not?" flashed Hester, up in arms.
"'Fraid of brother Joe," said Donald.
"Besides, Hester," said Henrietta anxiously, "you know you don't want us."
"Henrietta, don't be a fool!" flashed Hester.
"WELL, Hester - !" remonstrated the pained Henrietta.
"Come on in, and no more nonsense!" said Hester.
"Not this trip, Hester," said Donald.
"No, sir!" said Teddy.
"But what idiots you all are! Why not?" cried Hester.
"'Fraid of our elder brother," said Donald.
"All right," said Hester. "Then I'll come along with you."
She hastily opened the gate.
"Shall I just have a peep? I'm pining to see the house," said Henrietta, climbing with a long leg over the door of the car.
The night was now dark, the moon had sunk. The two girls crunched in silence along the cinder track to the house.
"You'd say, if you'd rather I didn't come in - or if Joe'd rather," said Henrietta anxiously. She was very much disturbed in her young mind, and hoped for a clue. Hester walked on without answering. Henrietta laid her hand on her sister's arm. Hester shook it off, saying:
"My dear Henrietta, do be normal!"
And she rushed up the three steps to the door, which she flung open, displaying the lamp-lit living-room, Joe in an arm-chair by the low fire, his back to the door. He did not turn round.
"Here's Henrietta!" cried Hester, in a tone which meant: "HOW'S THAT?"
He got up and faced round, his brown eyes in his stiff face very angry.
"How did YOU get here?" he asked rudely.
"Came in a car," said young Henrietta, from her Age of Innocence.
"With Donald and Teddy - they're just outside the gate," said Hester. "The old gang!"
"Coming in?" asked Joe, with greater anger in his voice.
"I suppose you'll go out and invite them," said Hester.
Joe said nothing, just stood like a block.
"I expect you'll think it's awful of me to come intruding," said Henrietta meekly. "We're just going on to Bonamy's." She gazed innocently round the room. "But it's an adorable little place, awfully good taste in a cottagey sort of way. I like it awfully. Can I warm my hands?"
Joe moved from in front of the fire. He was in his slippers. Henrietta dangled her long red hands, red from the night air, before the grate.
"I'll rush right away again," she said.
"Oh-h," drawled Hester curiously. "Don't do that!"
"Yes, I must. Donald and Teddy are waiting."
The door stood wide open, the headlights of the car could be seen in the lane.
"Oh-h!" Again that curious drawl from Hester. "I'll tell them you're staying the night with me. I can do with a bit of company."
Joe looked at her.
"What's the game?" he said.
"No game at all! Only now Tatty's come, she may as well stay."
"Tatty" was the rather infrequent abbreviation of "Henrietta".
"Oh, but Hester!" said Henrietta. "I'm going on to Bonamy's with Donald and Teddy."
"Not if I want you to stay here!" said Hester.
Henrietta looked all surprised, resigned helplessness.
"What's the game?" repeated Joe. "Had you fixed up to come down here to-night?"
"No, Joe, really!" said Henrietta, with earnest innocence. "I hadn't the faintest idea of such a thing, till Donald suggested it, at four o'clock this afternoon. Only the weather was too perfectly divine, we had to go out somewhere, so we thought we'd descend on Bonamy. I hope HE won't be frightfully put out as well."
"And if we had arranged it, it wouldn't have been a crime," struck in Hester. "And, anyway, now you're here you might as well all camp here."
"Oh no, Hester! I know Donald will never come inside the gate. He was angry with me for making him stop, and it was I who tooted. It wasn't him, it was me. The curiosity of Eve, I suppose. Anyhow, I've put my foot in it, as usual. So now I'd better clear out as fast as I can. Good night!"
She gathered her coat round her with one arm and moved vaguely to the door.
"In that case, I'll come along with you," said Hester.
"But Hester!" cried Henrietta. And she looked inquiringly at Joe.
"I know as little as you do," he said, "what's going on."
His face was wooden and angry, Henrietta could make nothing of him.
"Hester!" cried Henrietta. "Do be sensible! What's gone wrong! Why don't you at least EXPLAIN, and give everybody a chance! Talk about being normal! - you're always flinging it at ME!"
There was a dramatic silence.
"What's happened?" Henrietta insisted, her eyes very bright and distressed, her manner showing that she was determined to be sensible.
"Nothing, of course!" mocked Hester.
"Do YOU know, Joe?" said Henrietta, like another Portia, turning very sympathetically to the man.
For a moment Joe thought how much nicer Henrietta was than her sister.
"I only know she asked me to play the piano, and then she dodged out of the house. Since then, her steering-gear's been out of order."
"Ha-ha-ha!" laughed Hester falsely and melodramatically. "I like that. I like my dodging out of the house! I went for a breath of fresh air. I should like to know whose steering-gear is out of order, talking about my dodging out of the house!"
"You dodged out of the house," said Joe.
"Oh, did I? And why should I, pray?"
"I suppose you have your own reasons."
"I have too. And very good reasons."
There was a moment of stupefied amazement. . . . Joe and Hester had known each other so well, for such a long time. And now look at them!
"But why did you, Hester?" asked Henrietta, in her most breathless, naïve fashion.
"Why did I what?"
There was a low toot from the motor-car in the lane.
"They're calling me! Good-bye!" cried Henrietta, wrapping her coat round her and turning decisively to the door.
"If you go, my girl, I'm coming with you," said Hester.
"But why?" cried Henrietta in amazement. The horn tooted again. She opened the door and called into the night:
"Half a minute!" Then she closed the door again, softly, and turned once more in her amazement to Hester.
"But why, Hester?"
Hester's eyes almost squinted with exasperation. She could hardly bear even to glance at the wooden and angry Joe.
"Why?" came the soft reiteration of Henrietta's question.
All the attention focused on Hester, but Hester was a sealed book.
"She doesn't know herself," said Joe, seeing a loop-hole.
Out rang Hester's crazy and melodramatic laugh.
"Oh, doesn't she!" Her face flew into sudden strange fury. "Well, if you want to know, I absolutely CAN'T STAND your making love to me, if that's what you call the business."
Henrietta let go the door-handle and sank weakly into a chair.
The worst had come to the worst. Joe's face became purple, then slowly paled to yellow.
"Then," said Henrietta in a hollow voice, "you can't marry him."
"I couldn't possibly marry him if he kept on being IN LOVE with me." She spoke the two words with almost snarling emphasis.
"And you couldn't possibly marry him if he WASN'T," said the guardian angel, Henrietta.
"Why not," cried Hester. "I could stand him all right till he started being in love with me. Now, he's simply out of the question."
There was a pause, out of which came Henrietta's:
"After all, Hester, a man's SUPPOSED to be in love with the woman he wants to marry."
"Then he'd better keep it to himself, that's all I've got to say."
There was a pause. Joe, silent as ever, looked more wooden and sheepishly angry.
"But Hester! Hasn't a man GOT to be in love with you - ?"
"Not with me! You've not had it to put up with, my girl."
Henrietta sighed helplessly.
"Then you can't marry him, that's obvious. What an awful pity!"
"Nothing can be so perfectly humiliating as a man making love to you," said Hester. "I LOATHE it."
"Perhaps it's because it's the wrong man," said Henrietta sadly, with a glance at the wooden and sheepish Joe.
"I don't believe I could stand that sort of thing, with ANY man. Henrietta, do you know what it is, being stroked and cuddled? It's too perfectly awful and ridiculous."
"Yes!" said Henrietta, musing sadly. "As if one were a perfectly priceless meat-pie, and the dog licked it tenderly before he gobbled it up. It IS rather sickening, I agree."
"And what's so awful, a perfectly decent man will go and get that way. Nothing is so awful as a man who has fallen in love," said Hester.
"I know what you mean, Hester. So doggy!" said Henrietta sadly.
The motor-horn tooted exasperatedly. Henrietta rose like a Portia who has been a failure. She opened the door and suddenly yelled fiercely into the night:
"Go on without me. I'll walk. Don't wait."
"How long will you be?" came a voice.
"I don't know. If I want to come, I'll walk," she yelled.
"Come back for you in an hour."
"Right," she shrieked, and slammed the door in their distant faces. Then she sat down dejectedly, in the silence. She was going to stand by Hester. That FOOL, Joe, standing there like a mutton- head!
They heard the car start, and retreat down the lane.
"Men are awful!" said Henrietta dejectedly.
"Anyhow, you're mistaken," said Joe with sudden venom to Hester. "I'm not in love with you, Miss Clever."
The two women looked at him as if he were Lazarus risen.
"And I never was in love with you, that way," he added, his brown eyes burning with a strange fire of self-conscious shame and anger, and naked passion.
"Well, what a liar you must be then. That's all I can say!" replied Hester coldly.
"Do you mean," said young Henrietta acidly, "that you put it all on?"
"I thought she expected it of me," he said, with a nasty little smile that simply paralysed the two young women. If he had turned into a boa-constrictor, they would not have been more amazed. That sneering little smile! Their good-natured Joe!
"I thought it was expected of me," he repeated, jeering.
Hester was horrified.
"Oh, but how beastly of you to do it!" cried Henrietta to him.
"And what a lie!" cried Hester. "He liked it."
"Do you think he did, Hester?" said Henrietta.
"I liked it in a way," he said impudently. "But I shouldn't have liked it, if I thought she didn't."
Hester flung out her arms.
"Henrietta," she cried, "why can't we kill him?"
"I wish we could," said Henrietta.
"What are you to do when you know a girl's rather strict, and you like her for it - and you're not going to be married for a month - and - and you - and you've got to get over the interval somehow - and what else does Rudolf Valentino do for you? - you like HIM - "
"He's dead, poor dear. But I loathed him, REALLY," said Hester.
"You didn't seem to," said he.
"Well, anyhow, you aren't Rudolf Valentino, and I loathe YOU in the rôle."
"You won't get a chance again. I loathe YOU altogether."
"And I'm extremely relieved to hear it, my boy."
There was a lengthy pause, after which Henrietta said with decision:
"Well, that's that! Will you come along to Bonamy's with me, Hester, or shall I stay here with you?"
"I don't care, my girl," said Hester with bravado.
"Neither do I care what you do," said he. "But I call it pretty rotten of you, not to tell me right out, at first."
"I thought it was real with you then, and I didn't want to hurt you," said Hester.
"You look as if you didn't want to hurt me," he said.
"Oh, now," she said, "since it was all pretence, it doesn't matter."
"I should say it doesn't," he retorted.
There was a silence. The clock, which was intended to be their family clock, ticked rather hastily.
"Anyway," he said, "I consider you've let me down."
"I like that!" she cried, "considering what you've played off on me!"
He looked her straight in the eye. They knew each other so well.
Why had he tried that silly love-making game on her? It was a betrayal of their simple intimacy. He saw it plainly, and repented.
And she saw the honest, patient love for her in his eyes, and the queer, quiet central desire. It was the first time she had seen it, that quiet, patient, central desire of a young man who has suffered during his youth, and seeks now almost with the slowness of age. A hot flush went over her heart. She felt herself responding to him.
"What have you decided, Hester?" said Henrietta.
"I'll stay with Joe, after all," said Hester.
"Very well," said Henrietta. "And I'll go along to Bonamy's." She opened the door quietly, and was gone.
Joe and Hester looked at one another from a distance.
"I'm sorry, Hester," said he.
"You know, Joe," she said, "I don't mind what you do, if you love me REALLY."