Chapter 3 - Voluntary
Mr. Eustace Vernon is not by any error to be imagined as a villain of the deepest dye, coldly planning to bring misery to a simple village maiden for his own selfish pleasure. Not at all. As he himself would have put it, he meant no harm to the girl. He was a master of two arts, and to these he had devoted himself wholly. One was the art of painting. But one cannot paint for all the hours there are. In the intervals of painting Vernon always sought to exercise his other art. One is limited, of course, by the possibilities, but he liked to have always at least one love affair on hand. And just now there were none - none at least possessing the one charm that irresistibly drew him - newness. The one or two affairs that dragged on merely meant letter writing, and he hated writing letters almost as much as he hated reading them.
The country had been unfortunately barren of interest until his eyes fell on that sketching figure in the pink dress. For he respected one of his arts no less than the other, and would as soon have thought of painting a vulgar picture as of undertaking a vulgar love-affair. He was no pavement artist. Nor did he degrade his art by caricatures drawn in hotel bars. Dairy maids did not delight him, and the mood was rare with him in which one finds anything to say to a little milliner. He wanted the means, not the end, and was at one with the unknown sage who said: "The love of pleasure spoils the pleasure of love."
There is a gift, less rare than is supposed, of wiping the slate clean of memories, and beginning all over again: a certain virginity of soul that makes each new kiss the first kiss, each new love the only love. This gift was Vernon's, and he had cultivated it so earnestly, so delicately, that except in certain moods when he lost his temper, and with it his control of his impulses, he was able to bring even to a conservatory flirtation something of the fresh emotion of a schoolboy in love.
Betty's awkwardnesses, which he took for advances, had chilled him a little, though less than they would have done had not one of the evil-tempered moods been on him.
He had dreaded lest the affair should advance too quickly. His own taste was for the first steps in an affair of the heart, the delicate doubts, the planned misunderstandings. He did not question his own ability to conduct the affair capably from start to finish, but he hated to skip the dainty preliminaries. He had feared that with Betty he should have to skip them, for he knew that it is only in their first love affairs that women have the patience to watch the flower unfold itself. He himself was of infinite patience in that pastime. He bit his lip and struck with his cane at the buttercup heads. He had made a wretched beginning, with his "good and sweet." his "young and innocent and beautiful like - like." If the girl had been a shade less innocent the whole business would have been muffed - muffed hopelessly.
To-morrow he would be there early. A ship of promise should be - not launched - that was weeks away. The first timbers should be felled to build a ship to carry him, and her too, of course, a little way towards the enchanted islands.
He knew the sea well, and it would be pleasant to steer on it one to whom it was all new - all, all.
"Dear little girl," he said, "I don't suppose she has ever even thought of love."
He was not in love with her, but he meant to be. He carefully thought of her all that day, of her hair, her eyes, her hands; her hands were really beautiful - small, dimpled and well-shaped - not the hands he loved best, those were long and very slender, - but still beautiful. And before he went to bed he wrote a little poem, to encourage himself:
When he read it through he entitled it, "The Veil of Maya," so that it might pretend to have no personal application.
After that more than ever rankled the memory of that first morning.
"How could I?" he asked himself. "I must indeed have been in a gross mood. One seems sometimes to act outside oneself altogether. Temporary possession by some brutal ancestor perhaps. Well, it's not too late."
Next morning he worked at his picture, in the rabbit-warren, but his head found itself turning towards the way by which on that first day she had gone. She must know that on a day like this he would not be wasting the light, - that he would be working. She would be wanting to see him again. Would she come out? He wished she would. But he hoped she wouldn't. It would have meant another readjustment of ideas. He need not have been anxious. She did not come.
He worked steadily, masterfully. He always worked best at the beginning of a love affair. All of him seemed somehow more alive, more awake, more alert and competent. His mood was growing quickly to what he meant it to be. He was what actors call a quick study. Soon he would be able to play perfectly, without so much as a thought to the "book," the part of Paul to this child's Virginia.
Had Virginia, he wondered, any relations besides the step-father whom she so light-heartedly consented to hoodwink? Relations who might interfere and pray and meddle and spoil things?
However ashamed we may be of our relations they cannot forever be concealed. It must be owned that Betty was not the lonely orphan she sometimes pretended to herself to be. She had aunts - an accident that may happen to the best of us.
A year or two before Betty was born, a certain youth of good birth left Harrow and went to Ealing where he was received in a family in the capacity of Crammer's pup. The family was the Crammer and his daughter, a hard-headed, tight-mouthed, black-haired young woman who knew exactly what she wanted, and who meant to get it. Poverty had taught her to know what she wanted. Nature, and the folly of youth - not her own youth - taught her how to get it. There were several pups. She selected the most eligible, secretly married him, and to the day of her death spoke and thought of the marriage as a love-match. He was a dreamy youth, who wrote verses and called the Crammer's daughter his Egeria. She was too clever not to be kind to him, and he adored her and believed in her to the end, which came before his twenty-first birthday. He broke his neck out hunting, and died before Betty was born.
His people, exasperated at the news of the marriage, threatened to try to invalidate it on the score of the false swearing that had been needed to get the boy of nineteen married to the woman of twenty-four. Egeria was frightened. She compromised for an annuity of two hundred pounds, to be continued to her child.
The passion of this woman's life was power. One cannot be very powerful with just two hundred a year, and a doubtful position as the widow of a boy whose relations are prepared to dispute one's marriage. Mrs. Desmond spent three years in thought, and in caring severely for the wants of her child. Then she bought four handsome dresses, and some impressive bonnets, went to a Hydropathic Establishment, and looked about her. Of the eligible men there Mr. Cecil Underwood seemed, on enquiry, to be the most eligible. So she married him. He resisted but little, for his parish needed a clergywoman sadly. The two hundred pounds was a welcome addition to an income depleted by the purchase of rare editions, and at the moment crippled by his recent acquisition of the Omiliac of Vincentius in its original oak boards and leather strings; and, above all, he saw in the three-year-old Betty the child he might have had if things had gone otherwise with him and another when they both were young.
Mrs. Desmond had felt certain she could rule a parish. Mrs. Cecil Underwood did rule it - as she had known she could. She ruled her husband too. And Betty. When she caught cold from working all day among damp evergreens for the Christmas decorations, and, developing pneumonia, died, she died resentfully, thanking God that she had always done her duty, and quite unable to imagine how the world would go on without her. She felt almost sure that in cutting short her career of usefulness her Creator was guilty of an error of judgment which He would sooner or later find reason to regret.
Her husband mourned her. He had the habit of her, of her strong capable ways, the clockwork precision of her household and parish arrangements. But as time went on he saw that perhaps he was more comfortable without her: as a reformed drunkard sees that it is better not to rely on brandy for one's courage. He saw it, but of course he never owned it to himself.
Betty was heart-broken, quite sincerely heart-broken. She forgot all the mother's hard tyrannies, her cramping rules, her narrow bitter creed, and remembered only the calm competence, amounting to genius, with which her mother had ruled the village world, her unflagging energy and patience, and her rare moments of tenderness. She remembered too all her own lapses from filial duty, and those memories were not comfortable.
Yet Betty too, when the self-tormenting remorseful stage had worn itself out, found life fuller, freer without her mother. Her step-father she hated - had always hated. But he could be avoided. She went to a boarding-school at Torquay, and some of her holidays were spent with her aunts, the sisters of the boy-father who had not lived to see Betty.
She adored the aunts. They lived in a world of which her village world did not so much as dream; they spoke of things which folks at home neither knew of nor cared for; and they spoke a language that was not spoken at Long Barton. Of course, everyone who was anyone at Long Barton spoke in careful and correct English, but no one ever troubled to turn a phrase. And irony would have been considered very bad form indeed. Aunt Nina wore lovely clothes and powdered her still pretty face; Aunt Julia smoked cigarettes and used words that ladies at Long Barton did not use. Betty was proud of them both.
It was Aunt Nina who taught Betty how to spend her allowance, how to buy pretty things, and, better still, tried to teach her how to wear them. Aunt Julia it was who brought her the Indian necklaces, and promised to take her to Italy some day if she was good. Aunt Nina lived in Grosvenor Square and Aunt Julia's address was most often, vaguely, the Continent of Europe. Sometimes a letter addressed to some odd place in Asia or America would find her.
But when Betty had left school her visits to Aunt Nina ceased. Mr. Underwood feared that she was now of an age to be influenced by trifles, and that London society would make her frivolous. Besides he had missed her horribly, all through her school-days, though he had yielded to the insistence of the aunts. But he had wanted Betty badly. Only of course it never occurred to him to tell her so.
So Betty had lived on at the Rectory carrying on, with more or less of success, such of her Mother's Parish workings as had managed to outlive their author, and writing to the aunts to tell them how bored she was and how she hated to be called "Lizzie."
She could not be expected to know that her stepfather had known as "Lizzie" the girl who, if Fate had been kind, would have been his wife or the mother of his child. Betty's letters breathed contempt of Parish matters, weariness of the dulness of the country, and exasperation at the hardness of a lot where "nothing ever happened."
Well, something had happened now.
The tremendous nature of the secret she was keeping against the world almost took Betty's breath away. It was to the adventure, far more than to the man, that her heart's beat quickened. Something had happened.
Long Barton was no longer the dullest place in the world. It was the centre of the universe. See her diary, an entry following a gap where a page had been torn out:
"Mr. V. is very kind. He is teaching me to sketch. He says I shall do very well when I have forgotten what I learned at school. It is so nice of him to be so straightforward. I hate flattery. He has begun my portrait. It is beautiful, but he says it is exactly like me. Of course it is his painting that makes it beautiful, and not anything to do with me. That is not flattery. I do not think he could say anything unless he really thought it. He is that sort of man, I think. I am so glad he is so good. If he were a different sort of person perhaps it would not be quite nice for me to go and meet him without any one knowing. But there is nothing of that sort. He was quite different the first day. But I think then he was off his guard and could not help himself. I don't know quite what I meant by that. But, anyway, I am sure he is as good as gold, and that is such a comfort. I revere him. I believe he is really noble and unselfish, and so few men are, alas!"
The noble and unselfish Vernon meanwhile was quite happy. His picture was going splendidly, and every morning he woke to the knowledge that his image filled all the thoughts of a good little girl with gray dark charming eyes and a face that reminded one of a pretty kitten. Her drawing was not half bad either. He was spared the mortifying labour of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In one of his arts as in the other he decided that she had talent. And it was pleasant that to him should have fallen the task of teacher in both departments. Those who hunt the fox will tell you that Reynard enjoys, equally with the hounds and their masters, the pleasures of the chase. Vernon was quite of this opinion in regard to his favourite sport. He really felt that he gave as much pleasure as he took. And his own forgettings were so easy that the easy forgetting of others seemed a foregone conclusion. His forgetting always came first, that was all. But now, the Spring, her charm and his own firm parti pris working together, it seemed to him that he could never forget Betty, could never wish to forget her.
Her pretty conscious dignity charmed him. He stood still to look at it. He took no step forward. His role was that of the deeply respectful "brother artist." If his hand touched hers as he corrected her drawing, that was accident. If, as he leaned over her, criticising her work, the wind sent the end of her hair against his ear, that could hardly be avoided in a breezy English spring. It was not his fault that the little thrill it gave him was intensified a hundred-fold when, glancing at her, he perceived that her own ears had grown scarlet.
Betty went through her days in a dream. There were all the duties she hated - the Mothers' meetings, the Parish visits when she tried to adjust the quarrels and calm the jealousies of the stout aggressive Mothers, the carrying round the Parish Magazine. There were no long hours, now. In every spare moment she worked at her drawing to please him. It was the least she could do, after all his kindness.
Her step-father surprised her once hard at work with charcoal and board and plumb-line, a house-maid posing for her with a broom. He congratulated himself that his little sermon on the advantages of occupation as a cure for discontent had borne fruit so speedy and so sound.
"Dear child, she only wanted a word in season," he thought. And he said:
"I am glad to see that you have put away vain dreams, Lizzie. And your labours will not be thrown away, either. If you go on taking pains I daresay you will be able to paint some nice blotting-books and screens for the School Bazaar."
"I daresay," said Betty, adding between her teeth, "If you only knew!"
"But we mustn't keep Letitia from her work," he added, vaguely conscientious. Letitia flounced off, and Betty, his back turned, tore up the drawing.
And, as a beautiful background to the gross realism of Mothers' meetings and Parish tiresomenesses, was always the atmosphere of the golden mornings, the dew and the stillness, the gleam of his white coat among the pine-trees. For he was always first at the tryst now.
Betty was drunk; and she was too young to distinguish between vintages. When she had been sober she had feared intoxication. Now she was drunk, she thanked Heaven that she was sober.