- CHAPTER XIV THROUGH THE STORM
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THROUGH THE STORM
"IF one could always smell the sulphur, how easy it would be to avoid the Devil!"
Mr Revell had once said those words, jestingly, when comparing Goethe's conception of Mephistopheles with that of Marlowe, and Phosie had thought to herself, after the way of youth, that good and evil were always distinguishable.
Men and women, to her, were divided into good and bad, white or black; she knew nothing of the moral greys of the world, and while she understood complexity of character in tastes and opinions, her inexperience made no allowance for an equal complexity in conduct and motives.
She never dreamed that insidious Temptation, with fatal Ignorance, can assume the pleasing forms of Welcome Guests, the one wrapped in a mantle of false illusion, the other trailing in the dust the bright wings of Love himself.
When Jules Revell came into her life Phosie, in spite of the oppression of his masterful personality, accepted him in all good faith at his own valuation.
She did not particularly like him, but there were times when her indifference warmed into friendship and they seemed in harmony with each other. It was then in his power to influence and attract her. Such times were rare, but the thought of them swept Jules off his feet.
Only his self-control, so difficult to shake, kept him | | 120 from betraying himself to the girl in extravagant words and deeds. All unknowingly she had brought him to heel, never realising how she excited, and at the same time held in check, a violent, and hitherto wholly self-indulgent, nature.
It was a fortnight after Mr Revell's funeral. Mrs Bird, whose sorrow for her old master and agitation over his burial had rendered her useless in the house, was spending the day with her relatives in Peckham.
Gus's depression had given place to his usual cheerfulness, enhanced by the importance of executing little commissions at neighbouring shops in his sombre suit of mourning.
Jules had gone to the city in the morning to keep an appointment with his late uncle's lawyer. Nothing had yet been decided about the disposal of Mr Revell's property. His will was deposited at the lawyer's office, and although there had been several consultations with Mr Faraday, of Messrs Faraday & Boyton, Jules had not told Phosie any particulars.
She had known nothing of her guardian's affairs, and how his death would affect her own position had not yet entered into her calculations.
The house in The Stroll had been her home for so long, she was so accustomed to living there, that even the prospect of appearing in Hewett Addison's sketch did not change her thoughts of the future. She supposed it would mean paying rent to Jules, whom she concluded would go away, leaving Mrs Bird to let rooms and manage the house.
It was late afternoon when Jules returned from the lawyer's office. He was in high spirits, and, meeting Gus in the street, gave him some money to spend on delicacies for supper.
"Have you good news, Jules?" asked Phosie, when he entered the breakfast-room where she was sewing.| | 121
"Yes—great!" he answered, shovelling coal on the fire before he pulled off his big Canadian fur coat and thick gloves.
"I'm so glad!" she exclaimed, laying down her work.
"Well—good news for me," he went on, with slight hesitation. "But I don't know whether it will be pleasing to you, Phosie. We shall see. I'll tell you this evening. Is the Birdie coming home?"
"Yes, but not till late. She has a key."
"Then we shall be able to have a good business talk. We'll enjoy ourselves. I'm sure we've been miserable long enough."
He laughed as he spoke, and she looked at him in some surprise.
"I don't think you have been particularly miserable, Jules," she observed.
"You wouldn't have me a hypocrite, Phosie?"
"Oh, no! I didn't mean to say anything unkind, but it seems strange to talk about enjoying ourselves—here—so soon."
Jules shrugged his shoulders impatiently and laughed again; then, seeing her expression as she picked up her work, straightened his face and answered in a voice of serious reproach.
"We can't measure grief by time, Phosie. I didn't love my dear uncle any the less because I don't rave about it. If you like to think me heartless, you must. I've been misunderstood before. It isn't my fault, it's my misfortune. I can bear it, even from you."
Phosie sprang up, all contrition and sympathy.
"Forgive me, Jules!" she cried, and laid her hand on his shoulder.
He was staring gloomily into the fire.
"You don't know me, Phosie," he said, without looking round. "I'm such a rough, uncouth sort of fellow. I don't know how to talk to women. I've never had anything to do with them in any way, for I'm different | | 122 from other men. Why, I never cared to have a girl for a friend till I met you."
He had chosen his words shrewdly. She was more contrite, sympathetic and flattered, touched by the sadness in his voice and believing him implicitly.
The timely arrival of Little Gus saved her from humbling herself entirely. She was ashamed of her cruelty. How could she have thought Jules indifferent? What was her loss compared to his?
Miss Lily Parlow joined them at supper, by Phosie's invitation. She looked very sweet in the black frock she had put on as suitable to the occasion, and Jules expressed his admiration in stealthy glances.
He imagined, quite wrongly, that Phosie was acting the spy, and enjoyed his own skill in carrying on a flirtation without being suspected. Had he been sure of her he would have behaved very differently, for then it would have been good sport to let her know what he was doing and make her wretched with jealousy.
Lily was pleased with herself and ogled Gus and Jules with quiet complacency. She thought they were both in love with her, being at the age when young ladies secretly enact romantic love scenes in their minds with every unmarried man whom they meet.
Little Gus, revelling in muffins, was far too engrossed to be fascinated, but Jules thought her a most winning little person, and contrived to tell her so, unheard by the others, several times during the evening.
After supper they sat round the fire and roasted chestnuts. Lily and Jules carried on the conversation, encouraged in their small attempts at wit by the appreciation of Gus, who was ready to laugh whether he saw the point of a joke or not.
Phosie sat in silence. Now and again Jules glanced at her thoughtful face and his attention wandered for a second from the matter in hand, but he made no effort to draw her into the talk.| | 123
As the clock struck half-past nine Miss Lily Parlow rose, shook the bits of chestnut in her skirt on to the hearth, and said she must go, having promised to be home by five-and-twenty minutes to ten. She was always punctual to a minute.
Jules and Gus took her to the door, the former escorting her in all gallantry down the steps of the house and up the steps next door.
Phosie pulled the blind in the breakfast-room on one side and craned her neck to watch them go.
It was a dark, stormy night. She saw how the gaunt branches of the plane trees shivered, and the great lilac bush in the garden dipped and curved to one side under the lash of the wind.
Jules, after exchanging a few cordial words with Mrs Parlow, who admitted her daughter, returned to his own house, shutting the door noisily behind him. Phosie heard him talking to Little Gus in the hall, and then the latter, leaning over the banisters, called out:
"Good night, Phosie! Jules says I look so tired, so I'm going to bed."
"Oh, very well, dear. Good-night!" she replied.
Jules re-entered the breakfast-room just as she turned from the window.
"It's as cold as charity!" he said, with a shake of his shoulders. "Can't you hear the wind howling? Let's have a log on the fire."
"It is hardly worth while so late," she answered, but Jules had fetched the log and thrown it on the sinking embers without noticing what she said. It crackled and spluttered and threw out little sparks of fire.
"That's better!" he exclaimed, giving the log, as he was fond of doing, a smart kick with his heel. "Now we can have our talk."
"Not to-night," said Phosie. "I'm tired, and it's nearly a quarter to eleven."
"Oh, yes, I won't keep you long—it's awfully im- | | 124 portant!" he said earnestly. "Do sit down for a moment. I promised Mr Faraday to tell you at once. Please, Phosie! Only five minutes!"
"Oh, very well."
She sat down again in the low chair. Jules crossed the room and closed the door. Then he seated himself on the other side of the hearth. She looked at him expectantly, but he seemed to find it difficult to begin.
"What have you to tell me?" she asked, after waiting for a minute.
"About my interview with the lawyer," said Jules, "about my uncle's will, Phosie."
Again he hesitated. The log still hissed on the fire. She thrust out her foot to extinguish a spark upon the rug. The sound of the wind, which they had not noticed during the early part of the evening, was growing more shrill and loud every minute.
"My uncle has left directions that his collection of pottery here, and the things he kept at his bank, are to be sold by auction. They ought to realise a very fair amount. He was not a rich man, but he has left quite a tidy little sum of money. Everything is specified in the will. This house is a freehold. Of course it is also mentioned in the will."
"You are his heir?" asked Phosie.
The frequent repetition of the word will, and Jules's evident, if suppressed, excitement in what he had to say, jarred on her.
"I am his heir," he replied slowly. "I am his sole heir. He leaves me everything, except a small legacy to his doctor—everything! Do you realise what that means, Phosie?"
He leaned forward, eagerly studying her face. She pondered for some seconds. Then her expression changed.
"I suppose it means that I—"| | 125
"You are penniless!" interrupted Jules Revell. "He forgot all about you. His will was only made a year ago, but he doesn't mention you. What do you say to that?"
"I say that he never forgot me!" she retorted, with a flash of anger. "He was my dearest, kindest friend always. I will not reproach him—no, not for a single minute in my inmost thoughts. I congratulate you on your good fortune, Jules, but you needn't waste your pity on me, for I don't want it. Do you think I'm going to break my heart over money? No, indeed! The world is too happy a place for that."
She rose and moved towards the door. A muffled sound of thunder rumbled in the distance and the howl of the wind was deadened into a moan.
Jules sprang up and threw himself in front of her, clutching at both her hands and pulling her slowly, but forcibly, towards him. She resisted his effort, more in surprise at the suddenness of the action than in anger.
She put her hands on his shoulders, for he had let them go, and tried in vain to push him off, but he only drew her more strongly into his embrace.
"It is all yours!" he exclaimed. "Everything I have is yours! I love you—you know how I worship you! Phosie—no—no—don't be frightened—Phosie! I love you! I want to marry you—now, Phosie—don't be foolish—"
She hardly heard what he said. All the oppression of all the months she had known him enveloped her spirit. She struggled wildly for freedom—for literal freedom with the strength of every muscle, and for moral freedom from the mastery and violence of his soul against hers.
For a few seconds, she could not tell how long, she was conscious of the fierce lock of his arms, of the terrible nearness of his face, eyes glaring into eyes, his breath | | 126 on her cheek—then they were apart, with the table between them.
They bent towards each other, panting. There was a gleam of lightning, a near peal of thunder, and the lash, lash of rain against the windows.
"Are you mad?" gasped Phosie, pushing back her disordered hair. "Have you gone mad? How dare you—dare you—Jules! How dare you—"
He recovered himself quickly. She saw how his big chest rose and fell more and more evenly; his face regained its usual colour, but the zigzag, swollen vein on his forehead still seemed to throb. He pressed his clenched, shaking hands down upon the table and looked at them, slowly spreading out the fingers till they were all flat and quiet.
There was tense silence. She partly understood the struggle for self-control going on in the man before her. She was inwardly trembling herself, and in that few minutes, as she watched him, the ignorance of her childhood was gone. Fear swept over her. The room was like a trap.
Slowly, stiffly, Jules raised his head, as if it cost him an effort to look at her.
By one of those strange revulsions of feeling that seize upon a woman in the midst of such a storm of emotion, she was suddenly sorry for him.
"Forgive me! I forgot myself!" he said in a quiet, restrained voice. "Don't be cruel to me, Phosie. I promise—I swear not to frighten you again. We must fight it out some time, you and I! Let it be to-night."
She moved away from the table, pressed her hand to her eyes for a second, and then laid it unsteadily on the back of a chair.
"What is there to say, Jules? To-morrow!" she sighed.
"To-night!" he repeated hoarsely. "I can't wait. You must listen to me! You must!"
Phosie was obliged to sink into her chair. She was | | 127 weak and faint. He knelt down beside her and she shrank away.
"Oh, don't!" he pleaded. "I only want to tell you of my love. You see your power. You can make me do anything you please."
She rested her head against the back of the chair, listening to the rain—listening to the man—apparently dazed, but alert in mind and still afraid—horrible! Horrible!
Jules implored her to marry him. He poured out his desires in a stream of thick, eloquent words. He urged his suit in the wildest and most extravagant terms of praise, endearment and flattery.
He reproached her bitterly for the terror she had shown. He implored her to trust him, only to trust him, that was the keynote of it all.
He would show her the depths from which she had raised him! He forgot her youth. He forgot her innocent outlook on a world of which she knew so little, but he did not forget to paint his story in the false colours of spurious romance.
The fire burnt low. The storm without had spent its fury.
Jules had taken her hands. They lay cold and still in his. He was tired with his own vehemence, and even his voice was hoarse, but he went on repeating, in different words, all the arguments that were plausible, passionate, bewildering.
Phosie was pale as death. Her hair was pushed back and her forehead was set into a stern, unchanging frown. Her half-closed eyelids quivered, and her young face looked as if it were drawn and puckered with age.
Suddenly Jules bent down and kissed her hands, without raising them, as they rested passively in his.
His lips were burning.
A shudder passed over her at his touch. She opened her eyes, as if she had been asleep, and rose to her feet.| | 128
He, too, sprang up and waited, breathlessly, bending towards her.
"It is impossible, Jules," she said. "I do not love you, and even if I did, I would not marry you."
An exclamation broke from his lips, but she lifted her hand for silence and spoke again—strange words from a girl of eighteen:
"You tell me you have lived a wicked life. You are not ashamed of this, but I am—for your sake. I will never marry you. You are not good enough to be my husband."
She turned and left him. All her fear and anger were gone.
Slowly, wearily, she mounted the dark stairs. The gas was burning in the little strip of passage outside her room. As she put up her hand to turn it out she heard a step behind her, and stopped, her arm still raised.
It was Jules.
She moved away from the gas to the open door of her room. Their eyes met. He put both hands on the wall on either side of the door, bent forward and spoke to her. She heard what he said. As he stooped lower, trying to whisper, she put up her hand, higher and higher, till it was laid on his throat.
A pulse seemed to hammer under her palm. She looked at him steadily and sadly—a long, brave look without flinching—and all the while her hand pressed him gently back.
They understood each other. His eyes drooped before her, but her own were luminous and wide and never wavered an instant. Their mute struggle ended. Without another word he turned and went away.
Phosie raised the blind in her room, knelt down by the window, and lifted her face to the sky.
It was still black and lowering and wind-swept, but one bright star shone in the east.
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