- BOOK III THE CHINA SHOP
- CHAPTER XIII
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ANGELINA went back next morning to the small house by the sea where she and Julius had lodged, where she, alone, after his desertion, had fumbled about for her own soul, and nearly found it.
The November weather was still charming; nothing had changed in twenty-four hours, and she found this surprising: when we are dramatic we multiply days without scruple. She felt that she had been away for many weeks. Larks were singing, seeded thistles were looking like scalloped silver cups. They were religious. They were chalices.
The landlady asked if she had seen Mr. Pole. A letter had come for him. It was propped up on the sitting-room mantelpiece, and was merely a circular. Angelina stared at the address on the envelope, and certainly that was a funny name! To her it was of many-mingled letters; it was Pole and flinch; it was Julius and Antony, Esq. There was, perhaps, a touch of the ribald and the farcical in her relations with these two men.
She sat down to her tea, eating and drinking fast, so that she might go and lie by the little waves. It was warm enough to stay there for hours. Oh, wonderful climate and wonderful scene! Her heart ached. She had wished to stay here for ever and alone. But that blessed pause was over. No contemplative life for her yet.
She thought of Antony lying upstairs in that tall London house through these marvellous days of late autumn. She thought of Julius—and she did not know where he was or with whom. This—with whom! It barely stirred her to any jealousy. She could keep cold, so long as he kept away.
Next day she went to Brighton and got permission from Mrs. Chope's tenant to go over the cottage. Her mother's house was now let out in apartment floors. She looked inertly at those staring while bills propped against the glass on the drawing-room floor. It was another Angelina Peachey who had lived there long ago.| | 292
Certainly Mrs. Chope's delicate mahogany and fragile china was a possession to be grateful for. Angelina looked at it with a business eye. She was playing a new part: that of the sternly practical woman. She meant to sell it, and in her own way. When she left the cottage she walked for hours about Brighton, and staying longest in those old crooked lanes behind the post office, where Antony had once bought china.
There was no opening left in Brighton for buying and selling. She went on to Worthing; this was on her way back to what in her heart she called fondly "her own sea."
Worthing was a place of no imagination. It was materially minded and without tradition. She ran along by a loop line to Littlehampton, and liked that better. Then she went to Bognor, and liked it less than Worthing. Chichester, the last likely place left, she already knew. The choice lay plainly between Littlehampton and Chichester. One of these places must see her life with Antony. They would settle down, she would carry out her scheme, one year would succeed another. This would make life. She had spent a practical day, and she forgot her agony at Antony's plight. She even lost that dull aching of the heart which stood for Julius.
She decided that she would spend the next day in Chichester, returning to London, if possible, the same night. Otherwise Antony would fret and wonder. She did not propose to cause him a single pang more. He had suffered enough. They had all suffered. She was thinking distantly of Julius as she walked down the beloved lane to the lodging-house. She was wondering why even a circular had come for him. Fairyland had gone very far away, and it was a realm not to be dwelt upon; however, she still permitted herself to cherish some of his exquisite acts and words. Yet it had become odd—indelicate almost—to think of herself as the worshipped woman.
When the landlady opened the door it was at once plain that something had happened. She was haggard and openeyed, she seemed almost to block the way. She seemed to fluff out and spread herself—she was a regular hen guarding chickens.
The kitchen was opposite the front door, and Angelina, | | 293 looking along the narrow, coffin-like passage of this mean house, saw a strange man having tea there.
"Mr. Pole's come back!" said the landlady in an awful whisper, and jerking her head frantically towards the sittingroom door, which was shut. "Did you know, ma'am?"
She put her face close to Angelina's; had any man been there to see he would have said:
"What a mighty contrast between two women." Indeed, the man in the kitchen felt something of this. One was all ethereal quiver: amazement mixed with terrified delights; the other was sharp, with a sense of crude drama. The landlady had got hold of something tangible.
"Why didn't you tell me, ma'am?" she asked insolently. It wasn't fair to give anyone such a shock. How would you like it?"
"That Mr. Pole was coming back? I didn't know. Go away. Let me pass." Angelina, faint with joy, pushed her hands against the woman's shoulders, trundled her aside. Julius was near. He had returned. Other people were just so many articles of impediment; they were merely furniture.
She opened the sitting-room door, leaving the landlady staring. She shut it smartly behind her.
Julius was sitting by the open window, and before she even looked at him in detail, she was conscious of some monumental change in the man. The cherished outlines of his head and limbs, the gesture of that hand doubled on his knee, she absorbed instantly, yet added to this was the something else, the new and awful ingredient.
He was ugly and brown and little, just as he had been. He was dear. He was familiar. He was regained. No shadow hung between them, not even an explanation seemed necessary. But there was something else. Angelina observed, and she felt that the world cracked under her. That head inclined—acutely listening! What did it mean? His head was turned away from her, and he seemed, poor thing, to be looking out to sea while he sat waiting. He must have heard her enter, yet, obstinately, he remained motionless, inclining to her a mere shoulder.
Angelina, on tiptoe, as if he were asleep, went close. She took with immense tenderness that dear head in her two | | 294 hands. She drew it round to look at her. She knew already what had happened. Knowledge was born. The glance she met was mutely blank.
Julius was blind.
The one ridiculous word which came to her mind, and which very nearly spurted from her white dry lip, was "comic."
Yes, it seemed comic, merely that. After seven years of torpor in Normandy—years which now she knew for merely a time of endurance and of vague waiting for the real lover—drama toppled upon drama. Her tragedy, the tragedy of all three of them, seemed almost vulgar in its plenitude. Certainly it was comic. Just as she shut her mouth hard to keep this foolish word back, prevent it from speech, so she controlled that dangerous bubble in her breast, which was hysteria.
There was no time now, there never would be any time, for passive emotion. Her life must be devoted to intrigue and industry; intrigue first—to do what she could for both men; industry after—to work for them, to earn their bread. She seemed to know that Julius, with Antony, was utterly beggared. His first words said it:
"Love of my life, sweet of heart; I am back. I could not help it, Angelina. I am stone blind and a pauper."
She drew that blank head to her breast. Tears from those sightless eyes splashed on her delicate blouse.
Language for a long time utterly failed them, and the room throbbed with pain. Yet even through this silence and despite his plight, Julius imposed the dazzling quality of his presence. Angelina felt the rapt gladness, which, never, could she account for. Just to be with him; that was enough. He was nothing but a meteor in her firmament, but when he rushed across her sky he flooded it with his own light. He put out all the others. Antony was dimmed. He was not dismissed; she would keep leer word with him; yet, dear heaven, here was the man that she loved. The pressure of that blind head to her breast became convulsive. Presently she softly settled it against the back of the roomy arm-chair in which Julius sat. She slipped to the floor between his knees and sobbed. His hands found her black hair, and his fingers moved in it.| | 295
"Darling," he said—and even his voice seemed blank—"can you forgive me for going away? Can you forgive me for coming back."
He laughed desolately. Antony also had laughed as he lay in the bed: yet what a difference between those two travesties of mirth!
"Don't talk of forgiveness, Julius; we could never offend. Why didn't you tell me? If I had known it might have made all the difference."
She was thinking of Antony. Perhaps if she had known only so recently as the day before yesterday that Julius was blind and a beggar, she might have refused to go to Antony. She might have kept herself sacred to the one big claim that one man had. Now she was doomed to split compassion in twain.
Her head was against his knee, his hand caressed her, running delicately to the nape of her neck. Once he stooped and softly kissed her hair: already he had the almost uncanny, intuitive sense of the blind, and, feeling her retreat, he said at once:
"Do I repel you? I don't see why I shouldn't—an imperfect, bungled thing. Get me into a Home for the Blind, Angelina. Come and see me on visiting days."
Antony had said much the same thing about himself. Yes, the position was certainly comic. Angelina smiled in the midst of her secret torture. Such a spasm of the mouth! There was no one now to see.
"Repel me! No, never," her voice thrilled. " But the moment seems too awful for love-making. The moments always will be; that is what I feel."
"Dear! I utterly understand, and indeed this side of love—just kissing—is the first thing to go when trouble comes.
Julius spoke wearily.
"I'd better," he continued, "tell you exactly what has happened. From the first moment I kept something from you. It was such a strong terror that I dared not speak of it. Before ever I met you, Angelina, my eyes had troubled me, and I went to a big swell in London. He told me to go to him again later,"| | 296
"That was the business you went on?"
"Yes; keep the lash out of your voice."
"My very clear, I wasn't lashing."
"Bear with my nerves, sweetest, be prepared for them. When you can't see you imagine everything. I shall get used to it. I shall grow a new hide. At present I can't feel sure that even my face looks clean."
"You went to the oculist that day you left me?"
"Yes—and what a day! It was my last of sight; for you can't call the sights of London seeing. I walked away from you through a cloud of clear larks—and is a cloud clear? How they sang! I can hear it! But never mind." He laughed, and this time almost happily. Angelina looked at the sightless, smiling face. His sunny nature would triumph; it would be his salvation. And she would be his eyes; not one mood of the sky or of the sea should escape him. He shouldn't lose a single waving of the tamarisk trees. She would translate to him all and everything. Of tamarisk trees he began to speak.
"Sun-riddled spray," he said, "floated in a faint mist between the sea and the half-bare tamarisks that morning when I went to the oculist.
"He said there must be an operation at once, and he gave me hope of sight. I suppose he was just bucking me up; oh no! I suppose he did hope or he wouldn't have done it, would he?"
His voice was flat again. He seemed to feel about with it, just as he felt with his scrupulously sensitive hands.
"And the next that I knew, I was blind; that's all, Angelina. How could I claim you? How could I impose a blind beggar on you, my dear? I lay in the dark and thought about it. I said to myself:
" 'Let her go back to ffinch and marry him. God bless her. Let her think me false. That's better for her.' I was only too thankful that you had not married me. Don't cry, darling, for it hurts me more than anything."
He moved his hand and gripped her shoulder.
"No, I won't cry," she said, and kept perfectly still.
"So I stayed where I was; it was comfortable, but the price was high, and I knew I couldn't stay for ever."| | 297
"Where was it?"
Angelina nearly jumped. Antony was in Harley Place at this moment. When she went to Antony, Julius had been very near.
"I'd spent nearly all my money, and I thought I'd put an end to things. That's easy enough, and I never wanted courage—of that kind. I was the other sort of coward. Bob and my father rubbed that in. I stole you from Antony."
"You never wrote to Robert?"
"I never wrote to a soul. I meant to slip out. I came down here to the sea. I thought I'd have a last look at you. A look! Did you hear what I said? Darling, darling"—he bent, enfolding her rapturously, but she remained rigid—"I shall never look at your face again."
"You won't see it grow old. Such as I had you keep." Her voice tried to sound gay.
"Dear heart, when I pull you to me, as I did just now, why do you stiffen your back in the savage little way that babies do? I've seen young blackamoors at it."
"I didn't know my back stiffened. But I don't want you to kiss me. It is childish; you said something of the sort yourself just now. Dear, dearest one—don't, don't! Let me go."
"Oh, but I can't let you go. Come here. Angelina, you are slipping away from me. It is cruel. And I can't see."
There was an impressive pause, and all that she suffered through it he would never know: however much you talk and however freely confess, the man never knows the full total of your pain.
Angelina struggled with herself, wrestled—and lost. His mutely tender face, with that new heart-breaking expression of searching, made her rush to him, and their mouths met.
Later, she slipped to the floor again, and between his knees. Her face was rent, and her eyes were wilder than ever they had been. She let her head fall, she held both his hands and said eloquently:
"We are going to be together for ever, but—I can't say it, I can't explain. Dear Julius—no kissing. Do you understand?"| | 298
"Perfectly. And I agree. We will put it away—just childish toys we once had and rejoiced in. Our love is now at a nobler and a more abstract level. Is that what you mean?"
"Yes, yes!" she was relieved and eager. You say all that I feel."
"There would even be a certain artistic impropriety in our making tangible love," he concluded quaintly.
He sighed, yet with less depth than she had marked in other sighs of his. And she knew, from this moment, that Julius could dismiss what he called "tangible love" more easily than she could.
She, of the three, was still at full tide. Julius and Antony had ebbed.
The landlady knocked at the door. Angelina never troubled to move. Little correctitudes no longer touch you when your sorrow is big. She merely turned and said:
"Yes, bring in supper, Mrs. Bridger. And get the small bedroom, at the back of mine, ready for Mr. Pole."
Julius gave a jerk of the knee. Her shoulder was touching it, and this movement of his ran through her body. He was jarred. They both were.
"And my man," he said. "Is there a room for him? He can't get back to London to-night."
"That can be easily managed, sir."
The landlady stared. Those insolently curious eyes! Angelina was valiant. People would always stare at him, her poor love! That rugged brown face and black glasses, that head, altogether too massive upon a slight man, would attract attention. She shrank proudly for Julius. He would be a curiosity. People would gape. Trippers would gape, say she settled in Littlehampton. And he had such a fine scorn of trippers. He riddled the Commonplace mind With satire. But he would not know. He could not see. No glance could ever inflame him.
They would be a curious trio; he, she, Antony. Again she shrank. They would be peculiar, and she hated it. Yet she knew that the life-tragedy which they would share and which would be but one tragedy—that was big enough, in all con- | | 299 science, to beat off the puny attacks of the popular mind. They would move through the world and disregard it.
When she was with one man she felt piercing remorse for her treatment of the other. The day before yesterday, when she sobbed by Antony's bed, the plaintive shadow of Julius had, just for a moment, slid between them. Now, at the feet of Julius, she was torn with sharp sorrow for Antony. He was lying alone to-night upon that high bed.
He could not move. Julius could not see. Was there ever such a position? Comic! Yes: there was the word.
The landlady went away. Presently there came from the kitchen sounds of cutlery. She was coming back to lay the cloth.
"After supper will you take me to the sea?" asked Julius.
"The sea—yes. But it will break our hearts. We were happy—and——"
She began to cry.
"For the love of God, don't, Angelina! Let me keep calm. Can't my man take me upstairs to that room at the back, so that I may wash and change my coat for supper?"
Lightly, with eloquence, she kissed the back of his hands, her lips just brushing.
"I like you to do that. It's a toy we may keep," he said, sounding happier and standing up. "I must send him away to-morrow. I must learn to dress myself."
"No, no. Keep him for the present."
"But, darling girl, I haven't any money. Just enough to buy a dog, perhaps, or a—what are those wheezy instruments that blind men play?"
"Julius! Don't! Now, it is you who hurt me. I have money."
"Nonsense, dear; you only have your poor little seventy, and perhaps a hundred or so still left in the bank. Is there a hundred, Angelina?"
"I expect so. But I'm sure we shan't want money," she returned evasively. " Here he comes. Let him take you upstairs, and after supper we will go to the beach. There's a moon coming up. See?"
"Darling, I——"| | 300
"You can't. Of course not. Julius! Am I always going to be clumsy? Again I have hurt you."
"You've never hurt me, sweet; you couldn't."
His man came into the room and led him away.
When at last they went out, the moon was high and clear, throwing a strong green light. Angelina, timidly and very lightly, gave Julius her hand. He groped about for it, and then, speaking in a choked, ashamed way, said:
"That isn't enough. I'm not used to it all yet. Give me your arm, let me lean at your shoulder; I feel almost as if I were the woman and you the man—I sort of want your arm round my waist."
He laughed, adding:
"My thick-set waist! How absurd it is."
She did not speak, being conscious that no sentence she could voice would be without a quiver. She put her hand through his arm and pulled him vigorously to her; so, linked, and fingers reaching to touch, they went down the beloved lane once more. They were indeed together, but in cruelly changed circumstance. He said:
"You must tell me how everything looks. I rely upon you for that in the future. Be my eyes, dear heart; be to me everything."
"Yes, everything," she returned solemnly—and the words fought through her frightened thoughts.
For was not Antony lying helpless upon his bed up there in Harley Street, and expecting her back!
"The trees," she said, "are bare. Branches make a thick pattern against the green sky."
He sighed. "How beautiful bare trees can be. I remember that when I was abroad, where everything that grew seemed evergreen, I longed, with a sulky longing, for the naked delicacy of winter branches. We are coming to the sea. I can smell it; and, by the smell and by the sound, the tide is far out."
"Very far out," said Angelina blankly.
She kept letting go of speech. She turned to look at him. His outlines had always been dear, but now they were touching beyond any endurance. His every line pathetically said " blind man." There had always been | | 301 some untranslatable lofty simplicity about the look of this ugly, small, brown Julius; yet perhaps in the past she only had seen it. But now it was plain to the world, and he would be appealingly singular in his appearance. She could imagine people in the future turning round to look after him and pity him when he was led by.
"Yes, very far out," he repeated ponderingly. I can see the wide, ghosty stretch of pale sand, and then the long string—a necklace—of gold and green water. Angelina—doesn't the moon up there look like the calm eye of a cat? I mean a black cat: one of those with staring, sad eyes—malevolent and yet pathetic. Those sort of animals, the straight-tailed, short-coated black cats have always fascinated me. They seem devils, and yet devils despite themselves. They have some memory that goes behind their fall from grace. Do I talk absurdly? You know I always talked, and you always listened. I suppose that will be our way."
"What it means to me to hear you talk again! " she said, and a cruel sob burst out.
"You are crying. Don't, Angelina."
"No, I won't, I won't. Be very careful here, and lean hard on my arm. We are coming to the shingle."
"Yes," he nodded, and put out his hand as if to feel. "Just about here is the end of the lane, and now, is it now? the sweet tamarisks wave about us. We are passing through a world of fans."
"It is now, and—be careful—don't you remember that the shingle is very big at the beginning of the beach?"
"I remember everything; " he was leaning at her shoulder, and gripping her fingers in a queer, frightened way, "big shingle first, and then the small, and then the line of sand. Lead me out to the very edge of it all, my sweet one. Dear, darling Angelina, I have only you left."
Something very like a sob came from his throat now, and her heart, adoring him, stood still in its agony.
They went across the sands.
"I can see it all," Julius said more gaily. "Little crabs hurrying home in the moonlight, after an evening at the club."
Angelina laughed convulsively.| | 302
"How dear you are to me, Julius! And you've come back."
"Yes, I've come back. I suppose I ought not to have done, but there it is. Life is still too sweet, while you draw breath, anyway, for me to die. We are near the water now. Let's stand still and listen. The surf! Isn't it heavenly? This song sang round my bed in London while I lay on it blind. I lay listening to the sea; it remained in my ears, that echo of it, all those weeks. And how can I say I was blind when every moment I saw your face!"
They stood in silence, leaning close. The little waves broke, the moon shone steadily, and in the air there wasn't one pinch of autumn. It was all serenely gracious, it was sweetly uncaring. Angelina looked about her and found everything heartless. Julius stood absolutely still, his head back on his throat, the moon not sparing his lined, uncomely face. The moon didn't care a bit. He said at last:
"Take me back. Can't we sit in the shelter of the breakwater, as we did in the summer?"
"Yes, for a little while. It is warm enough; the wind is from the west. We'll get the other side."
Speaking, Angelina looked towards Littlehampton, and she wondered if that or Chichester would be their home of the future. To-morrow should decide. They settled upon fine shingle, and with the ghost white breakwater keeping the west wind away.
She said, while their hands kept tight, tight grip, and his blind face was turned adoringly towards hers:
"I must leave you to-morrow for a few days, perhaps for a week."
"Why?" he gave a galvanic jump upon the little stones.
"I can't tell you. Don't ask; but you'll know later. Will you trust me, Julius?"
He looked away towards Littlehampton, but with his face close up against the white wood of the breakwater. The blank closeness of that face to the breakwater, the way that, unconsciously, he nearly grated his poor nose against it, nearly drove her mad. He was blind. These helpless movements made her realise.| | 303
"Must you go? I'm—I'm afraid," he gulped at last, and turning right away, yet holding tight to her hand. " You see, I haven't got used to it. I'm a coward—but—well, there it is!"
"I must go, but I'll come back, and as soon as ever I can. I'll never leave you any more afterwards. My word for that."
"Darling," Julius turned swiftly round, he ducked awkwardly, and with a fumbling movement let his head fall upon her lap. "I trust you. Never have you broken your word to me, and I know you never will."
Angelina's hands apathetically moved down the side of his face—and it looked, in the moonlight, so appallingly drawn, that lean, brown face of his. She was remembering that time when Antony's head had fallen into her lap so desolately in their bedroom at the house in Normandy. That had been on the night when she first met Julius, and had, already, been stirred by him. Already, although she had not realised it, her life in Normandy with Antony, as his wife, had been determined. It was over, it lay dead. Perhaps Antony, psychically, had felt this and suffered. She could again see his brightly curling chestnut hair and the noble shape of his massive head: the implied power, the expressed weakness.
"I trust you," Julius was saying now, "as you trusted me."
She had another pang, for she remembered her confession regarding men to St. Mary of Egypt. That maidenly pause, that sense of a permanent retreat from all wooing, which she had felt while she lived alone by the sea, seemed already to be a phase far away. Her blood was rather racing now as she sat in a magic girdle of the moon near Julius. And her heart was in a double beat for, loving him, she yet remembered Antony. By and by that woman—of the letter to the Saint—would become her real and only self. This attitude of mind—of retreat from men—should be her mental and her spiritual goal; as it is of all finely passionate women in the end.
Reproach to her heart remained. Julius was trusting her. She had not trusted him.
He lifted his head from her lap, he dragged himself up, and, putting out both arms, felt for her. When he found her, | | 304 he drew her, unresisting, down. With one long sob, mutual, dim, they were enfolded. Angelina's wet face, grown wild, lay in the tenderly crooked alley of his arm: so she was blind, as he was blind.
Beyond the belt of sand the cynical sea kept singing.
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